Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Op-Ed: On Fossil Fuels, Trustees Can’t Be Trusted

The Fossil Free AU coalition intends to expose the institutions that maintain the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, even on our own campus.

The last semester of Fossil Free AU’s campaign drew immense power from students telling their stories of the climate crisis. These deeply personal stories--of oil disaster in Mississipi, of rising seas in Florida, of fracked communities in Pennsylvania--rooted us in our fight for climate justice. Though these narratives remind us why we must push our institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry, understanding individual stories will never be enough if we want to take meaningful action in response to the climate crisis.


To commit ourselves to finding solutions to the problem of climate change, we must focus on the structural roots of its existence and perpetuation. Who are the real culprits of the crisis? Who maintains the power of these industries and allows them to ignore tribal leadership, silence those most at risk and trample anyone in their path? Knowing our own stories is powerful, but understanding their root causes is actionable.


While it is important to focus on these structures, many of the individuals complicit are neither strangers to this campus nor this campaign. In fact, the institutions that consistently stand in the way of climate solutions are well represented on our very own Board of Trustees.


AU Trustee Arthur Rothkopf served as senior vice president and counselor to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 2005 to 2010.  The Chamber is a conservative lobbying organization with the largest annual lobbying budget in Washington, and finances pro-business candidates in elections around the country. Especially in recent years, it has been effective in maintaining corporate power in our democracy.


Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has dramatically amplified the voice of the fossil fuel industry. Unlimited spending has put out-of-touch plutocrats like the coal magnate Koch Brothers in charge of shaping the American political dialogue, from how we talk about issues to who gets to vote on them. In 2008, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief in support of Citizens United – in the middle of Rothkopf’s tenure as counselor to the Chamber’s president.  Now, the Chamber spends unknown amounts of secret money on elections and shapes the political landscape to the liking of the top one percent.


On climate change and environmental policy, the Chamber is predictably hypocritical and focused on protecting big business by stalling progress. They warn that any U.S. climate change mitigation politics would be very expensive. However, they refuse to acknowledge the crisis' estimates $1.2 trillion annual worldwide cost to society. They call for “global leadership” on climate change but have opposed the Kyoto Protocol from the get-go. And they have been widely criticized for dramatically inflating even the greatest job creation predictions for the Keystone XL pipeline, not surprising given that TransCanada is one of their members. Its positions have been so controversial that major corporate members of the Chamber – even energy utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Exelon – renounced their membership. And Rothkopf was in the middle of it all.


The fossil fuel industry knows that it’s losing this fight and is counting on its unrivaled spending power to maintain the status quo. Rothkopf comes from a conservative organization that is skeptical of climate change and seeks to defend the interests of big business. No wonder he sits on a board that doesn’t support divestment.


Perhaps the Board of Trustees has not shown cowardice in the face of our demands but instead realized that the buck they’d turn on advertising a “green” campus could not outweigh what they will lose in a post-fossil fuel world. As we politically bankrupt the fossil fuel industry, others are doing everything they can to save it.


Rothkopf is not the only trustee at AU with a conflict of interest or connection to the fossil fuel industry. Over the next few weeks, the Fossil Free AU coalition intends to expose the institutions that maintain the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, even on our own campus.



Audrey Irvine-Broque is a Junior is the School of International Service. David Shadburn is a Senior in the School of Public Affairs.


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