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Saturday
Oct272012

Taking charge of climate change

“We have met the enemy, and they is Shell,” writes Bill McKibben in his Rolling Stone magazine article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. In it, he cites a recent study by the Carbon Tracker Initiative showing that the reserves held by the world’s fossil fuel companies contain enough CO2 to, in his words, “wreck the planet” unless we stop them. We need to act quickly, he says, and we need to point the finger: “A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies . . .  and enemies are what climate change has lacked.” To fight this new enemy, he calls on college students to demand that their universities’ endowment funds dump their investments in fossil fuel companies. Other institutions, investors and pension funds, he says, should do the same.

But this strategy will never work as long as the fossil fuel companies are profitable, and divesture won’t make them unprofitable. Even if institutions were to divest en masse, less scrupulous investors would simply swoop in to take their place. Institutions and individuals should [ital] divest from fossil fuel investments just as they should divest from companies selling tobacco or firearms. But to suggest that divestment will succeed as the primary strategy to stop climate change is a mistake.

Fortunately, McKibben has made it clear elsewhere that he believes in a wide range of actions to fight climate change, from civil disobedience to political pressure. But he fails to frame his divestment plan in that broader context in his New Math article. Disengaged from that broader context of action, McKibben’s portrayal of fossil fuel companies as the enemy and divestment as the way to defeat them could lead us down a dangerous path; dangerous because divestment as a primary strategy won’t work. He says he wants the fossil fuel companies to feel severe financial pressure that will force them to behave more responsibly, and I agree with that aim. But divestment won’t pressure them. Exxon Mobil, for example, is the world’s richest company; there are just too many unethical investors waiting in the wings to jump on that bandwagon, even if it carries us straight to climate change hell.

But if divestment won’t force the fossil fuel companies to behave more responsibly, what will? I think we can rule out political strategies like carbon cap and trade—the fossil fuel companies have been more successful at pressuring the government than vice versa. An ethical epiphany on the part of the fossil fuel companies seems equally unlikely anytime soon.

The answer is, gulp, for each of us as consumers to reduce demand. But how can we? Our entire economy runs on oil, gas and coal. We need it to get from point A to point B, to heat and cool our homes and offices, and to make and move the products we love to buy. Almost no one lives without these conveniences, and almost no one wants to. Our dependence on fossil fuels rules out one of the most effective strategies we could use to pressure the fossil fuel companies—the boycott. When we wanted equal rights for all, we boycotted the buses in Birmingham; to fight for migrant farmworkers’ rights, we boycotted grapes; to end apartheid, we boycotted companies invested in South Africa. But boycotting fossil fuels would feel to most of us like a trip back to the stone age—no long distance trips, short ones only by foot or bike, homes without heat, and almost no consumer goods. In other words, impossible.

So how about reducing our fossil fuel consumption rather than going cold turkey? Surprisingly, McKibben argues that “lifestyle changes” aren’t working. “People perceive, correctly,” he says, “that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.” That statement concerns me deeply because it seems to say, “don’t bother, you’re wasting your time.”

Our individual actions, however, can make a difference, and they already have. In 2011, for instance, we used 240,000 barrels of gasoline per day less than in 2010, mainly because of rising prices. A mild winter resulted in a similar falloff in heating oil use. We could cut back even more by better insulating our homes with minimal out-of-pocket expense. We can cut back on our fossil fuel consumption enough to pressure the fossil fuel companies to behave more responsibly, and we must if we want to survive. Fossil fuels are responsible for over 95% of our CO2 emissions, so I certainly agree with McKibben’s call for “rapid, transformative change” in our fossil fuel consumption. But the most effective way to accomplish that change is not through institutional divestment in fossil fuel companies; it’s through individual action to reduce demand. 

By calling on college students to pressure their universities to divest, McKibben also runs the risk of absolving individuals of responsibility for their own actions. Rather than taking matters directly into our own hands and scaling back on our own fossil fuel use, he wants us to focus on getting others to divest.

This is surprising coming from someone who can often be found on the front of lines of the climate change fight. In effect, he isn’t asking us to boycott fossil fuels; he’s asking us to get someone else to boycott fossil fuels. I would rather rally around a movement whose battle cry is “Boycott fossil fuels!” than “Get someone else to boycott fossil fuels!” Gandhi didn’t say, “Get your campus administration to be the change you want to see in the world,” he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And if we want to see change in this world, each of us is going to have to be that change. Each of us must take personal responsibility for our fossil fuel footprint rather than simply calling on others to do it.

I’m not at all opposed to boycotting fossil fuel companies, and calling attention to their inexcusable destruction of the environment for the sake of profit, but I don’t think that asking others to do the boycotting is the answer. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for our carbon emissions; we need to measure them, and we need to reduce them. This is the kind of “bottom-up” action that brought about change in migrant farmworkers’ rights, civil rights, and apartheid.

Mckibben is right when he calls for a stop to what permaculture cofounder Bill Mollison calls “investing in our own destruction.” But as we lean on our institutions to do the right thing we should also look at our own investment portfolios and our own oil, coal and gas consumption and divest ourselves from fossil fuel profiteering as much as possible. As we do, we should “invest in our own resurrection” by redirecting our own funds toward environmentally responsible investments. Now is the time for each of us to look at our own fossil fuel consumption and pare it down as much as possible if we want to survive what McKibben calls “our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless” climate crisis. Calling on others to do it for us won’t work.

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