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What’s Wrong with Fossil Fuel Divestment

Never underestimate the environmental movement’s ability to squander its resources. Today’s fossil fuel divestment campaign is the latest example of fecklessness, and yet another demonstration—as if we needed one—that greens don’t understand the problems they’re trying to fix. John Gapper writes for the FT:

The [divestment] movement is an elaborate charade, which is too inconsistent and impractical to succeed. Even the campaigners admit they are not entirely serious — that their chances of shutting down ExxonMobil or Royal Dutch Shell are roughly zero, and that their own lights would go out if they did. It is a political campaign for carbon taxes and green laws in financial disguise. […]

Targeting Big Oil in this way is both too narrow and too broad. It is too narrow because there is no logic to blaming the producers of energy raw materials, rather than the companies and people that consume energy. Why should Exxon be a divestment target while others such as Apple, which runs energy-sucking server farms and produces millions of electronic devices, escape? […]

The second problem is breadth. The campaign is against a sector with a 2013 market value of about $4tn, according to Oxford university’s Stranded Assets programme. Its cash flow supports many pension funds and endowments…Even if some endowments divest, this would be a drop in the bucket, easily filled by less active and less socially conscious investors.

College students campaigning against fossil fuel investments might be best served by putting down their picket signs and enrolling in an Economics 101 course. People invest money to grow their wealth, and while a family like the Rockefellers may be wealthy enough to assuage its guilt for how it made its money by publicly divesting from fossil fuel holdings, the rest of us can’t afford that luxury.

Take the time to read Gapper’s piece in full. It gets to the heart of the problem with the divestment movement: its rampant inconsistencies. By taking on something as enormous as investments in brown energy, greens have not only set themselves up for failure, they’ve also started tallying up opportunity costs. Public appetite for green initiatives isn’t limitless, and neither is the funding or media attention these causes du jour receive.

But greens are nothing if not experts at finding ways to attack problems from the wrong angles, whether it’s anti-Keystone activism or the Global Climate Treaty or divestment. Here’s hoping that environmentalists change tack and find something to advocate that’s both worthwhile and realistic. One suggestion: promoting the efficiency gains that the transition to an information economy offers (telework, anyone?).

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  • Blackbeard

    TAI keeps running articles about how silly the Greens are and yet somehow they keep winning. Not winning in the sense of actually protecting the environment, but that’s not the real goal which is political power.

    On this particular subject, fossil fuel divestment, the point is signaling. Greens signal their moral superiority by being in favor of a useless but symbolically important tactic. They demonstrate their political power by making others, in this case prominent universities, bow to heir demands.

    • Corlyss

      “yet somehow they keep winning”

      They live primarily in an environment lacking in effective criticism. The movement is espoused by elites who control media, entertainment, education, and increasingly in Europe political upstarts symbolizing displeasure with the drift and mastery of major established parties. The idea that these Know-Nothings could get this far is a testament to the general population’s cultivated scientific ignorance. I’ve been faintly amused at some of the scientific programs on PBS in the last month that quietly and without fanfare have undermined the Greens’ trumpeted mantra that “the science is settled!” The programs don’t directly address AGW, but their message has been clear: science is never settled. If it is never settled for cancer research and weather prediction based on mathematical models, it is never settled for AGW, assuming that such a thing exists in the first place.

      “They demonstrate their political power by making others, in this case prominent universities, bow to heir demands.”
      That simply couldn’t happen without governments and bloated non-profits being deeply involved in propagating and propagandizing the myths. Governments and foundations make loyalty oaths to their Articles of Faith a criterion for funding. Dissenters don’t get money and their research dies. It was shocking to learn that this strategy operated even as early as the 1940s – ’60s to deprive legitimate cancer research into breast cancer because the research challenged the dominant radical mastectomy model, delaying for decades the discovery of how breast cancer spread. That’s where “peer review” takes an entire research field. No wonder scientists complained about it, even briefly, when Climategate occurred in 2010; once brilliant breakthroughs ossify into rigid dogma incapable of tolerating threats represented by new thinking. Just a tiny example of this I witnessed in the pages of Science News. A chemist discovered in the early 70s that if a cancer tumor was deprived of a blood supply, it couldn’t grow bigger than a pin head. What the tumor did was produce a substance that caused a nearby blood vessel to build out to the tumor. Because the scientist making the discovery was a chemist, and not a doctor, the cancer community would not accept the findings. Seventeen years later, I read in the same publication that it had finally been proven that indeed, depriving a tumor of blood prevented it from growing big enough to be dangerous. Most diseases have big foundations and an NIH department behind them. Allegiance to orthodoxy is how they control distribution of their funds. In contentious areas where big sectors of the economy are involved, as with cheap energy upon which prosperity depends, you get total war. Divorce government and foundation money from the scenario, a 1000 flowers might bloom if there were any money left. Something must be done about the strangle hold agenda motivated organizations have on scientific research before they destroy the value of science to society.

  • gabrielsyme

    My view is that the environmentalists should be encouraged to spend as much time and effort as they like on ineffective symbolic campaigns that, even if successful would accomplish precisely nothing.

    Some people’s time is better off wasted.

    • Corlyss


    • LarryD

      Unfortunately, they aren’t stupid enough to waste their money, it’s always our money.

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Have you read the new Ecomodernist Manifesto produced by the Breakthrough Institute? ( This is, I think, the kind of environmentalism that you would support.

    • f1b0nacc1

      An intelligent and reasonable document. I may not be entirely in consonant with all of it, but that is the kind of rational discussion that yields fruitful results.
      Thank you for sharing it…

  • bittman

    This article brought to mind the reason CA is living with such drastic water shortages today. The environmentalists there refused to let dams and reservoirs be built and forced the CA politicians (who the environmentalists own) to cut the water supply for the Central Valley to save the Delta Smelt. Several of the recent EPA regulations will have as devastating impact on America’s power availability as the environmentalists’ policies are having on CA’s water availability.

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    Environmentalists aren’t interested in getting more affordable energy. They are interested in reducing the surplus population. That means making food and energy costs as high as possible. If ignorant students can be co-opted into a self-extermination campaign, so much the better.

  • bo ure

    Then it all goes gray like the guy whispers the important part.

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