Like my colleague Nat Wheelwright, I applaud student concern about climate change and activism in the political arena. However, I am unsure that divestment of college and university endowments is the best target on which to focus student action for two reasons.
First, almost of us are willing consumers of fossil fuel energy—some more willing than others—but all of us consume fossil fuel energy. Therefore, we are complicit in the problem. As such, the divestment movement seems to contain an element of hypocrisy at its core.
To be clear, I understand very well how some major oil producers have funded the egregious disinformation campaign about anthropogenic climate change. These companies and the people responsible deserve society’s contempt for obfuscating the issue and potentially delaying action on climate, but I don’t know that all oil and gas companies are equally culpable.
My second concern with the divestment movement is its potential effectiveness. To me, it seems a roundabout way of effecting change. Sure, it may eventually lead to political action that weakens the hold of oil producers on Congress, but do we have enough time? Climate scientists warn that we are already past the point where nonlinearities inherent to the climate system may push it into rapid and catastrophic change. In my view, political action should focus on the most crucial target, which will bring about change as quickly as possible.
Society faces a predicament today. That is, there is so much energy condensed in oil that it almost defies belief. Think about it. A single gallon of gas will move your car somewhere between 25 and 50 miles depending on size of the car and the type of engine. Put your car in neutral and try pushing it a mile to get an idea of how much energy is in a gallon of gas; and all that for $3.67 a gallon. This impressive energy density has been a boon for humanity and industrial economies today are founded on cheap, abundant energy. However, the environmental costs not accounted for in the $3.67 price of gasoline are now coming back to haunt us. As we say in ecology, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
The problem is that the price we pay for a gallon of gasoline in no way properly values what its energy does for us or its environmental costs. In order for a transformation of our energy system from fossil fuels to renewable technologies to take place, we must adequately price oil and natural gas so that alternatives become cost competitive. By cost competitive, I do not merely mean that renewables pay for themselves over time, but that they are cheap enough such that people earning median family incomes can afford to convert. Or better yet, cheap enough so that people earning median incomes cannot afford not to convert.
May I suggest another target for political action? One that I think is more direct and which must be tackled before a meaningful transformation of our energy system can begin. That is, the annual subsidies and tax breaks which fossil fuel companies receive out of the federal budget.
Last week in his 2013 budget, President Obama proposed to eliminate $40 billion in tax breaks to oil and gas producers over the next decade. The president will need strong support to get his budget through Congress. However, this is just a start. Annual subsidies to oil and gas companies in the US exceeded $500 billion in 2011 according to a study conducted by the International Monetary Fund. Its estimate for global fossil fuel subsidies was an equally astonishing $1.9 trillion. For comparison, annual subsidies to renewable energy technologies only add up to $12.2 billion in the US.
Yes, eliminating oil and gas subsidies would mean that producers would pass on their additional costs to consumers, and yes, the poor would be the most affected. But until alternatives are cost competitive with oil and gas, they will never scale up to levels that can actually make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. Oil and gas subsidies place a huge burden on the growth of alternatives in the marketplace. However, with a level playing field, we might see quick progress toward a renewable energy economy.
So how can students target oil and gas subsidies?
In 2005, I was asked by the Union of Concerned Scientists to meet with the Maine congressional delegation in Washington to express support for two bills. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a non-profit whose membership is made up of active scientists willing to step outside of their roles as scientists to get involved in finding solutions to some of our most daunting problems. The UCS has conducted successful information campaigns about climate and energy, nuclear weapons, food and agriculture, and the importance of keeping science independent of the political process. The reason they asked me and two other scientists from Maine was that our senators at the time, Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, were perceived as politically moderate and potentially willing to cross party lines in support of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act and an “Integrity in Science” bill aimed at the Bush administration.
The Bush administration was infamous for pressuring government scientists to tone down or even falsify their conclusions in scientific papers and reports that were inconsistent with its ideology. Although the senators were reluctant to go against their party on the Integrity in Science effort, they were very much on board with McCain-Lieberman. Before meeting the senators, we spent a day with experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists honing our message and learning how a few well-informed, passionate, and well-prepared people can influence the political process if their efforts are well aimed and they show dedication and real concern for their cause. People, senators included, are motivated by face-to-face interactions with real people and their personal stories and concerns.
Today, Senator Collins is still perceived as a moderate Republican and Senator King is, of course, an independent. This independence makes each of them influential on particular issues where the Senate is evenly split between the parties. Both are well informed about climate warming and might be amenable to this cause, although Senator Collins receives some campaign support from oil and gas interests. As Bowdoin students, you have extraordinary access to these two influential senators. You are part of their constituency and you are well informed and passionate young people who are very concerned about the future of our planet. Make an opportunity to meet with each of the senators along with Representatives Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud. The Obama administration is facing an uphill battle even with this initial step toward weakening the power of the oil and gas industry. Even if his budget is passed, there is an enormous distance yet to go. You can find out when the senators will be in Maine by calling their offices. If you should need to travel to Washington to meet with them, I suggest you take the train.
In addition to political action, each of us needs to reduce our carbon footprint and provide an example for others. Doing so is not going to be easy or painless. You can find out how you consume fossil fuel energy and reduce those sources that contribute most to your footprint. For example, purchasing an electric or hybrid car can reduce your personal fuel consumption, but many of us still fly frequently. It takes only three moderate distance, there and back flights (four hours each way) to equal the fossil-fuel consumption of a moderately sized car for an entire year. Taking trains for long-distance travel reduces much of the carbon cost and supports our underutilized railway system. In short, you can lead by example and by understanding key processes in our political and socioeconomic systems to thereby focus your efforts on the actions most likely to be effective. Likewise, institutions such as Bowdoin College can assume a leadership role by investing in the currently available alternative technologies to reduce its carbon footprint and provide an example for other institutions and businesses.
John Lichter is director and professor of environmental studies.