fossil fuel

Charles Desmond/Thomas C. Jorling/Kier Wachterhauser: How Harvard and other rich institutions can help save our planet


Via The New England Journal of Higher Education, a service of The New England Board of Higher Education (

Nonprofit institutions with large endowments have been facing challenges from various stakeholders contesting the management of their investment portfolios. While these challenges are most commonly associated with institutions of higher education, pension funds and private foundations will increasingly face similar challenges regarding how the management of their endowments affects socially important policies. Together, these endowments represent hundreds of billions of dollars, and the market power they possess is very substantial.

In the case of higher education, students, faculty and some alumni are pressing these institutions to divest of their holdings in fossil fuel-based companies. These include coal, petroleum and, in some cases, natural gas companies. This advocacy is based upon an overall societal objective to decarbonize our energy system in order to hold greenhouse gas emissions at levels believed to be necessary to prevent an increase in global temperatures above 1.5°C. For above this level, there is widespread consensus in the scientific community that the climate will change in ways that will threaten the ability of the life-supporting biosphere to sustain the human population, which that will grow to something on the order of 10 billion by 2050. The threats from climate change are wide-ranging, from droughts and extreme storms to sea level rise and ocean acidification to migration of infectious diseases and rapid species extinction.

The challenge of climate change is real and the nonprofit institutions that manage vast portfolios must examine how their substantial investments affect the social, economic and environmental well-being of the human community. Simply put, the trustees of these major nonprofit endowments must examine the contribution to human well-being they make with the explicit choices in the composition of their portfolios.

Certainly divesting in carbon-based corporations is one avenue to consider. It is, however, our proposal that a positive investment strategy is a much more effective way to drive the message that climate change is real and requires action by nonprofit organizations who sit on large amounts of capital.

Thus, we propose, as a start, that nonprofit organizations with endowments greater than $1 billion commit to investing 10% of their endowment in corporations whose primary business activity is building and operating alternative energy systems based upon the endless supply of the sun’s energy and the wind. These alternative energy systems would include photovoltaic electric generation and associated energy storage technology, especially batteries.

The power of this investment strategy is immense. Consider the impact of a 10% investment from 100 institutions with endowments greater than a billion. At a minimum, this would produce $10 billion. Harvard alone would produce more than $4 billion. Investments of this scale would take this nation a long way toward decarbonization. More specifically, these investments would replace fossil fuel generation of electricity with the concomitant result that portfolio managers would cease to make any investments in fossil fuel companies. Thus, the proposed strategy would also accomplish the objectives of divestment.

And these investments are competitive. Investments in wind and solar projects are now returning 6% to 10%, which is fully in line with the range of investment objectives that trustees of nonprofits instruct portfolio managers to achieve.

Climate change represents a serious threat to the well-being of the human community. Leaders of nonprofit organizations cannot in good conscience watch this threat unfold as if it is someone else’s responsibility. It is also our hope that the managers of nonprofit funds in this country will set the example for all to follow, regardless of industry. It is the responsibility of all of us.

If you are managing massive amounts of capital and can achieve competitive rates of return by investing in alternative energy technologies that will help protect the life-supporting biosphere, the choice appears clear: Act Now!

Charles Desmond is CEO of Inversant, the largest parent-centered children’s saving account initiative in Massachusetts. He is past chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and was a higher education policy adviser to former Gov. Deval Patrick. Since 2011, he has served as a NEBHE senior fellow. Thomas C. Jorling is former CEO of the ecosystem nonprofit NEON Inc., former VP for Environmental Affairs at International Paper Co., former commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and former professor and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College. Kier Wachterhauser is a partner at the law firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane, LLP, in Quincy, Mass., where he specializes in labor and employment law, legal compliance and governance, and litigation.

Frank Carini: Fossil fuel, cell towers, windows MUCH more deadly to birds and bats than wind turbines


Via ecoRI News (

As wind power spins forward in the United States — the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm is the first offshore wind-energy facility in the country — the giant turbine blades that generate energy are often blamed for the death of birds and bats.

Turbines certainly do kill flying creatures, but how does this oft-maligned form of renewable energy stack up against other sources that are used to power our society? Plenty of research still needs to be conducted — especially concerning bat mortality caused by energy production — but most of the research already done shows fossil fuels are more lethal than spinning blades.

North American wind turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds annually, according to a 2013 study. Another 2013 study claimed every year 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines. A 2014 report claims turbines kill between 214,000 and 368,000 birds annually.

The peer-reviewed 2014 study by two federal scientists and the environmental consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., however, found that number is small compared with the estimated 6.8 million fatalities from collisions with cell and radio towers. The study’s authors estimated that on an annual basis less than 0.1 percent of bird populations in North America die from collisions with turbines.

Collisions with windows, on the other hand, kill between 365 million and 988 million birds in the United States annually.

“Properly sited wind turbines are relatively bird-friendly, especially when compared to fossil fuels,” according to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “However, they are far from benign.”

The Virginia-based organization has noted that wind turbines and their associated infrastructure, notably power lines and towers, are among the fastest-growing threats to birds and bats in the United States and Canada. At the end of 2016, there were more than 52,000 operating, commercial-scale, land-based wind turbines in the United States, according to the ABC, producing about 66,000 megawatts of power.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill any bird protected by the act, even if the death is incidental, such as being struck by a spinning turbine blade, killed during a mountaintop mining explosion, or suffocated in an oil spill. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act recommends that to avoid eagle deaths companies should seriously consider where they site energy projects.

Wind-energy development, like all energy projects and infrastructure, can contribute to habitat loss, which can have significant impacts on birds, bats and other wildlife.

The ABC recommends “bird-smart” wind-energy development that ensures turbines are sited away from bird-collision risk areas; employs effective and tested mitigation to minimize bird fatalities; conducts independent, transparent, post-construction monitoring of bird and bat deaths; and calculates and provides fair compensation for the loss of ecologically important, federally protected birds.

Six decades ago hydroelectric power was celebrated as a source of renewable energy. Hydroelectric power includes both massive hydroelectric dams and the smaller mill dams that once powered the Industrial Revolution, most notably in New England. Now, many dams are being torn down because of their unintended environmental and wildlife impacts, such as changing ecosystems and impeding the path of migratory fish.

A bigger problem for birds and bats is the continued burning of fossil fuels. A 2014 National Audubon Society report noted that hundreds of bird species in the United States, such as bald eagles, are at “serious risk” because of climate change.

A 2009 study using U.S. and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind and fossil-fuel sources. It concluded that wind facilities are responsible for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour of electricity, while fossil-fuel power power plants are responsible for 5.2 fatalities per gigawatt-hour.

Another study, published four years later, found that wind turbines kill 0.27 birds per gigawatt-hour, nuclear plants 0.6, and fossil-fuel power plants 9.4.

Bat deaths attributed to wind turbines aren't as well documented, but limited research has shown this renewable-energy source does have an impact. In Rhode Island, for instance, turbine owners have reported dead bats at the base of their structures.

Besides the dangers spinning blades pose for the only mammals that can fly, a 2011 study found that bats can succumb to the pressures created when turbine blades pass through the air, a phenomenon known as barotrauma.

While bats normally live for a long time, they, like sharks, are slow reproducers, meaning their populations rely on high adult survival rates.

All energy production comes with costs, especially to ecosystems and wildlife. Source and siting should be about making decisions based on more than just price and profit.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

New England's tidal power

The world's first commercial-scale and grid-connected tidal-stream generator –  SeaGen  – in  Strangford Lough ., Nothern Ireland. The strong  wake  shows the power in the  tidal current .

The world's first commercial-scale and grid-connected tidal-stream generator – SeaGen – in Strangford Lough., Nothern Ireland. The strong wake shows the power in the tidal current.

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The old saw was that New England has virtually no sources of energy. Of course what that meant was no fossil fuel (except for tiny amounts of coal in parts of southern New England). But it does have lots of wind power,  good solar-power resources and not insignificant river-water power. The last help make possible New England’s leading role in starting the American Industrial Revolution.

And, especially from Massachusetts Bay north, where the tides get progressively stronger and there are hundreds of estuaries,  New England has substantial tidal-power potential, too. And so it was heartening to hear Avery Brookins’s interview on Rhode Island Public Radio with marine conservationist Jonathan White. Mr. White is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit Of the Ocean, about the promise and challenges associated with installing tide mills. To hear his interview, hit this link:



Miriam Pemberton: Russian collapse a lesson in need for diversification

After months of whispered warnings, Russia’s economic troubles made global headlines when its currency collapsed halfway through December.Amid the tumbling price of oil, the ruble has fallen to record lows, bringing the country to its most serious economic crisis since the late 1990s.

Topping most lists of reasons for the collapse is Russia’s failure to diversify its economy. At least some of the flaws in its strategy of putting all those eggs in that one oil-and-gas basket are now in full view.

Once upon a time, Russia did actually try some diversification — back before the oil and gas “solution” came to seem like such a good idea.

It was during those tumultuous years when history was pushing the Soviet Union into its grave. Central planners began scrambling to convert portions of the vast state enterprise of military production — the enterprise that had so bankrupted the empire — to produce the consumer goods that Soviet citizens had long gone without.

One day the managers of a Soviet tank plant, for example, received a directive to convert their production lines to produce shoes. The timetable was: do it today. They didn’t succeed.

Economic development experts agree that the time to diversify is not after an economic shock, but before it. Scrambling is no way to manage a transition to new economic activity. Since the bloodless end to the Cold War was foreseen by almost nobody, significant planning for an economic transition in advance wasn’t really in the cards.

But now, in the United States at least, it is. Currently the country is in the first stage of a modest military downsizing. We’re about a third of the way through the 10-year framework of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Assuming that Congress doesn’t scale back this plan or even dismantle it altogether, the resulting downsizing will still be the shallowest in U.S. history.

It’s a downsizing of the post-9/11 surge, during which Pentagon spending nearly doubled. So the cuts will still leave a U.S. military budget higher, adjusting for inflation, than it was during nearly every year of the Cold War — back when we had an actual adversary that was trying to match us dollar for military dollar.

Now, no such adversary exists. Thinking of China? Not even close: The United States spends about six times as much on its military as Beijing.

Even so, the U.S. defense industry’s modest contraction is being felt in communities across the country. By the end of the ten-year cuts, many more communities will be affected.

This is the time for those communities that are dependent on Pentagon contracts to work on strategies to reduce this vulnerability. To get ahead of the curve.

There is actually Pentagon money available for this purpose. Its Office of Economic Adjustment exists to give planning grants and technical assistance to communities recognizing the need to diversify.

As we in the United States struggle to understand what’s going on in Russia and how to respond to it, at least one thing is clear: Moscow’s failure to move beyond economic structures dominated first by military production, and now by fossil fuels, can serve as a cautionary tale and call to action.

Diversified economies are stronger. They take time and planning. Wait to diversify until the bottom falls out of your existing economic base, and your chances for a smooth transition decline precipitously.

Turning an economy based on making tanks into one that makes shoes can’t be done in a day.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. This piece, distributed via, was cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

Ike, LBJ and GWB also didn't act

  March 7, 2014

Milder today, with even a touch of the sweet melancholy of spring. I think that when spring (that you can feel) really arrives, maybe next month, there will be an usually exuberant explosion of green. And maybe a particularly hot summer. The meteos predict much warmer weather starting later this year as El Nino gets cooking. Good, this year's heating bill have just about bankrupted us.

First, a reminder that Eisenhower did not do a thing when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956 and killed about 30,000 people; Johnson didn't do anything when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, and George W. Bush didn't do anything when Russia invaded and stole part of Georgia.

Fascist Russian dictator Putin still occupies Crimea and it looks at this point that not much will be done about it, at least in the short term. The Europeans fear that Putin will turn off their gas supplies; they have also essentially disarmed. This shows yet again how being dependent on fossil fuel from dictators is a dangerous thing.  The more local, renewable energy you can get, the safer you are.

Will Obama continue to look and act weak in the face of this thug? Or now that he has learned that sweet talk doesn't work with tyrants,  maybe  all of a sudden get tough, as happened when the scales feel from Jimmy Carter's eyes about the Soviets in 1979, when they invaded Afghanistan (helping to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980)?

Obama's retaliation  so far is a joke -- suspending some  visas and freezing some assets of people who weren't really in charge of the invasion of  Crimea. In fact, this was all  done at the order of Putin. It is the assets of Putin and the people around him, including the economic oligarchs of the  astonishingly corrupt current version of the Russian Empire, that need to be frozen.

By the way, one reason that Putin decided to seize Crimea is that the Soviet/Russian port there has been used to constantly resupply with armaments his fellow dictator Bashar Assad and other thugs around the world.

But reminder in all this: Eisenhower did not do a thing when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956 and killed about 30,000 people and Johnson didn't do anything when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.