Since I comment on the energy industry for a living, I do not invest in energy stocks, including stocks in the fossil fuel industry.
But if I did invest in the fossil fuel industry, I would be damn proud of all the good my investment was doing in the world. And so should the thousands of university endowments and financial institutions that are being told to sell their fossil fuel stocks by the divestment movement. That’s the message everyone who values energy, and above all the fossil fuel industry, should be promoting this week on Global Divestment Day this Friday, February 13.
The narrative of the divestment movement is that fossil fuel use is a planet-destroying addiction that is being peddled by the evil fossil fuel industry, which is using its ill-gotten influence to keep us addicted to poison. The technology exists right now to power our lives through the sun and the wind, but evil Big Oil is holding it back. The fossil fuel industry, declares divestment leader Bill McKibben, is “Public Enemy Number One.”
If this were true, divestment would be a moral policy. In fact, we would be morally obligated to go farther—not just to sell our stock in fossil fuel companies, but more importantly to boycott fossil fuel companies’ product.
A central component of the divestment claim is that renewables, particularly solar and wind, are more than adequate replacements for fossil fuels. Al Gore writes, “Renewable technologies are already economically competitive with fossil fuels in a number of countries without subsidies.” If this was the case, it would accelerate the transition much faster to boycott fossil fuels and live almost entirely off solar and wind, leading by example.
When student groups wanted to change Nike’s behavior in its Asian factories, they didn’t focus on telling people to sell their Nike stock—they stopped buying Nikes. When the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery Alabama wanted to end the racist policy of forcing black Americans to sit on the back of the bus, they stopped using the bus. If solar and wind are indeed competitive with fossil fuels, why not just start living virtually fossil-free lives?
This is a question I have asked everyone in the divestment movement I meet, from leader Bill McKibben to protesters at the recent People’s Climate March. Their answer is that somehow “individual action doesn’t work”—and so they are morally safe in wearing petroleum-based clothing, flying to international conferences using oil-based jet fuel, and living almost entirely within our 87% fossil-fuel-powered civilization.
In truth, their actions are more moral than their words. What everyone who refuses to boycott fossil fuels is acknowledging is that the relative benefits of fossil fuel use compared to solar and wind are incomparably greater than they admit—and the risk of truly catastrophic climate change is incomparably smaller.
Why do we use fossil fuels instead of solar and wind? Because one industry is capable of producing cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for billions of people—and the other is only capable of producing unreliable power that depends on fossil fuels or another power source. Case in point: Germany, the alleged model of renewables. In 2013, Germany got only 7% of its energy from solar and wind, and at any given moment in time it could rely on solar panels and windmills for none of its energy—anytime the wind stops blowing at night, the renewables are dead. Hence, the Germans are building more coal plants—and around the world, nearly everyone is using more fossil fuels.
What about climate catastrophe? Contrary to misrepresentations, large percentages of scientists agree that fossil fuels have a climate impact but not that it is causing a true catastrophe.
As individuals and societies, we have concluded, at least implicitly, that fossil fuels’ benefits are more than worth any risks or side-effects. And every data point confirms that we’re right to think so. Despite more than three decades of catastrophic predictions about our addiction to fossil fuels, the use of fossil fuel energy has helped us use machines to improve every metric of human well-being, from life expectancy to nourishment to climate-related deaths.
Those who disagree should boycott fossil fuels, lead by example, and let us see if what they preach is something we want to practice. But they have no moral right to tell the rest of us to divest from and shame the industries that will power our civilization for decades to come.