Once the lone province of climate scientists, the chorus warning of the costs of inaction on climate change grows larger daily, from former United States Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who warned Washington this summer of the coming climate bubble, to Desmond Tutu, who has urged institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Even the U.S. Congress, the week before August recess, introduced two big climate-related bills (in the House) and held four hearings on climate change. The tide is clearly shifting.
Financial pressure from the fossil fuel industry, however, has helped ensure that overall the U.S. Congress has done little to confront the challenges of a warming world. The fossil fuel industry spent $536 million on lobbying and donations to the 112th Congress and receives an estimated $37.5 billion annually in U.S. subsidies.
This lobby legacy, and the bias Congress and the administration have given to the fossil fuel industry, is what is ultimately responsible for the lack of inexpensive electric car options or robust grids powered by ample renewable energy options that would allow Americans to take the necessary steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
America’s current electricity demand could easily be met by renewables, yet those resources account for a fraction of electricity generation. Surveys show that most Americans think pursuing solar and wind energy is a wise idea, and 62 percent would pay more for energy if it meant curbing pollution from carbon emissions.
Despite the clear feasibility, and even public support in America for these solutions, little has been done.
This political gridlock in Congress has birthed the fossil fuel divestment movement, a national and global push to revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry to operate and to catalyze the transition to a sustainable, clean energy economy.
Americans desiring a healthy, sustainable future — individuals and institutions alike — are dumping the oil, gas, and coal investments that are rapidly making that future untenable. And while a social movement’s moral path can sometimes require sacrifice (e.g. fasting, arrest, etc.), divestment is helping their portfolios rather than harming them.
Even the financial heavyweights on K Street and Wall Street, from PricewaterhouseCoopers to figures like Robert Rubin, are warning of the economic risks of inaction on climate and investment in fossil fuels.
The risks are obvious. More than two-thirds of the world’s known carbon reserves must remain in the ground to keep us below the 2 degree Celsius limit recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. These reserves will remain unburned and become stranded assets whose value will be deeply reduced.
Like any movement that challenges the status quo, divestment has its critics. They cite the supposed inconsistency of divestment from the stock market but not from automobile use or other fossil fuel-dependent lifestyle activities. In doing so, they fail to recognize the gap in available alternatives and the reason for it.
While it is currently impossible for the vast majority of Americans to divest their lives of fossil fuels because the technology and/or resources are unavailable or prohibitively costly, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Congress could scale up renewable energy alternatives, electric vehicles, and clean, mass transport. We just need the political will in Washington to make these alternatives a reality. As more options become available, divestment in lifestyle choices will become far more feasible. The Obama Administration’s recent announcement that it will give $55 million to projects for improving electric vehicle technology and fuel efficiency for standard vehicles is just the kind of leadership we need in Washington.
Until the markets shift and federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry end, Americans should do everything in their power to exhibit demand for more sustainable options. That means everything from asking for fossil free investment options from your money manager or employer, to using public transit, biking, and walking whenever possible, buying only energy efficient appliances, cutting down on meat consumption, buying carbon offsets for plane travel and cloud computing, and all the other ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Many in Congress remain reluctant to resist lobbyists’ dollars or campaign contributions, so if we wish to have real, decisive action on climate, civil society and the private sector must show that transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is politically favorable. This September, the divest-invest movement will be making a big showing at the UN Climate Summit to demonstrate civil society support for real climate solutions now.
In Washington, or any town where money is often valued above all else, the act of moving dollars out of fossil fuels and into sustainable, renewable options is a powerful demonstration of values. It provides people and institutions with a direct way to leverage their power, make an impact on the conversation on climate, and put their assets in places that will actually build the future we need. Perhaps then Congress will finally listen.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Julia Trezona Peek is the campaign associate at DivestInvest.org, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.