McKibben vs. Coal in Brown University Debate

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A first-ever debate between environmental activist Bill McKibben and Chairman of Duke Energy James Rogers wasn’t much of a contest. It instead offered proclamations on energy policies — much of it relating to Germany — and to a lesser extent on fossil-fuel divestment, the issue facing Brown University’s board of overseers.

There were, however, solid revelations and common ground about the best approach going forward.

If there was a debate winner, it likely was the third participant, Brown professor Christian Parenti, who delivered a reasoned case for action beyond divestment, particularly in mandating that the public sector embrace green transportation, energy-efficient building standards and renewable energy.

“The clean-tech sector needs customers,” said Parenti, a professor of sustainable development.

Parenti also took plenty of swings at Rogers and Duke Energy. He called Rogers “thin-skinned” and accused the utility giant of pushing a right-wing agenda through the hard-line American Legislative Exchange Council, which opposes clean-air standards.

Rogers, for his part, recognized that he was outnumbered and outside of his congenial Southern confines and stuck to the standard that as CEO of the country’s largest utility he helped usher in the shale gas revolution, which he said cut carbon emissions to near 1990 levels — a benchmark set by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. He noted that he supported previous cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.

Rogers also noted that Duke Energy plans to have at least 2.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, a goal that, as Parenti noted, wouldn't come close to reaching the International Panel on Climate Change's recommendations to avoid severe climate change.

As a closing point, Rogers called for the rather peculiar “cathedral-thinking” approach to energy that compared an all-of-the-above energy policy to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. “Think about not just the implications for you, but for future generations," he said.

McKibben argued in rapid fashion that the hour is late for elaborate plans, and that fossil-fuel divestment is the best approach to swing momentum toward wholesale reduction in carbon pollution. Like divestment from South Africa to end Apartheid in the 1980s, the goal is to “politically bankrupt” fossil-fuel companies, he said. McKibben called coal “morally gruesome” and took aim at Rogers’ energy approach.

“In fact, four decades from now, the cathedral will be underwater," McKibben said.

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, McKibben showed his frustration by challenging Rogers directly, but was quickly put in line by student moderator Alex Friedland. It did start an ongoing back and forth about whether or not Germany was right to end its nuclear program and promote solar energy.

The common ground among McKibben, Rogers and Parenti was found in the closing remarks, when all three stated the importance of making changes legislatively and through the ballot box.

After the debate, Rogers stayed cheerful as he described being one of the few people in the meeting hall to oppose divestment. “I don’t mind being attacked as long as we make the advancement of the discussion of divestment," he said.

Brown University senior Daniel Sherrell said Rogers argument to advance the clean-tech sector lacked substance. He was happy with overall with the debate and believes it will influence the school’s board to act.

“I’m confident they will follow a strategy for divestment,” Sherrell said.

The Corporation of Brown University is expected to vote on divestment this month. Duke Energy is one of the 15 coal companies from which Brown University will decide whether to divest from.