Professor Andrew Parker of St John’s College at Oxford University is my new favorite person. The Times of London reports that a group of students wrote to Professor Parker to discuss demands being made by student protesters about fossil fuel divestment. His response wasn’t what they were expecting:
Two students at St John’s College wrote to Andrew Parker, the principal bursar, this week requesting a meeting to discuss the protesters’ demands, which are that the college “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels”. They say that the college, the richest in Oxford, has £8 million of its £551 million endowment fund invested in BP and Shell.
Professor Parker responded with a provocative offer. “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote. “But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”
One of the students wrote back and said he would present the proposal but he didn’t think Parker was being appropriately serious. Professor Parker responded to that note saying, “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).” The best part of the story is the response from the organizer of the protest:
Fergus Green, the organiser of the wider protest, who is studying for a master’s degree in physics and philosophy at Balliol College, said: “This is an inappropriate and flippant response by the bursar to what we were hoping would be a mature discussion. It’s January and it would be borderline dangerous to switch off the central heating.”
Yes, it would be rash and “borderline dangerous” to do something like that.
Now step back and take notice how closely this small debate at one college is a microcosm of the larger debate taking place around the globe. The teenage face of the anti-fossil fuel movement, Greta Thunberg, recently demanded “real zero” emissions starting right now. Following her advice would be the equivalent of cutting off the gas that heats the campus in the middle of winter. It wouldn’t just be “borderline dangerous” it would almost certainly be catastrophic for millions of people. Despite this, I bet protest organizer Fergus Green thinks she’s part of a “mature discussion.” In any case, a lot of people like him seem to think so.
Professor Parker’s response focuses the mind on the fact that this isn’t a game. There are significant costs to real people associated with eliminating fossil fuels. Natural gas, for instance, isn’t something we can simply cease using overnight or even in ten years. If we’re not careful about how we proceed, a lot of people could get hurt. So a fair response to people demanding an end to the use of fossil fuels is the one the professor put to these protesters: You first.