Divestment is No Excuse for Inaction

It became clear in just a few days here over J-term that the issue of divestment has captured the imagination of the Middlebury population. In a school full of aspiring investors, targeting the endowment is a clever approach, and divestment is not a bad idea. It is the height of hypocrisy to rail against climate change while using the enormous value of the companies that enable it as the source of our funding, akin to a police officer driving drunk or a minister with a mistress. When we profit from the success of oil and coal companies, any carbon emissions that we achieve as a community are essentially greenwashing, a gesture devoid of meaning. The students who pitched the concept to the trustees last weekend have worked hard to make their case to the broader community and to ensure that the change wouldn’t hurt the College’s bottom line. If all goes well, the trustees will respond favorably in the coming weeks and we can jump into new issues with equal enthusiasm. What we cannot do is to declare victory and then return to complacency.

It is important to ensure that we do not become so caught up in this one issue that we lose focus on the things that we can change within our own lives and as a community to reduce the impact of global climate change. If successful, divestment will earn Middlebury headlines from this paper and many more national outlets. It will bring years of positive publicity to this institution and bring our funding in line with our goals. But at the same time, buying a share of ExxonMobile, or AEP or Chesapeake does not bring those companies a dime. Their funding comes not from the stock market but from the fuel that we purchase.

Divestment has important symbolic value but will neither fix climate change nor bankrupt the dealers that exist purely to respond to our addiction to cheap and dirty energy. We cannot turn to divestment simply because changing our own habits is too difficult or because it provides the enormous battle against global climate catastrophe with an easily defined villain. To sit back and attack them while we use their product every day is an even worse form of hypocrisy than to take their money while trying to break the addiction — the moral equivalent of a heroin addict taking pot shots at his dealer while mainlining his product. Continue reading

How to Make Keystone XL a Political Winner

Yesterday I talked about how the Keystone Pipeline will have no effect on reducing or preventing global climate change. Beyond that, though, it’s a political loser for the Left. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that among people who have heard of the issue, 66 percent support the pipeline while only 23 percent believe that it should not be built. Although another poll was funded by industry groups it actually ended up finding similar events. In short, this is an issue that resonates extremely with a small group at the political margins but does not have the type of broad public support that might sway the Obama administration’s decision. Indeed, by allowing themselves to be arrested multiple times for protesting outside the White House, opponents of the pipeline risk being labelled as radical and losing public sympathy with an American public that does care about global climate change but would prefer to see it addressed in a more harmonious fashion.

While comparisons to the civil rights movement have been bandied around on environmental blogs, it seems unlikely that the majority of Americans will see the comparison between the construction of a single pipeline and the systemic oppression of an entire race. To compare the two feels artificial and insulting. Global warming does have the possibility of denying opportunities to future generations, especially in the developing world. But the pipeline has little to do with this because Canada is determined to get the oil sands to market. Paradoxically, if activists succeed in raising the price of oil it will make this development even more inevitable.

The best way for the President to benefit from the Keystone XL pipeline is to withhold approval of the project just long enough to trade for something. Maybe he could put it in part of a larger infrastructure in the Midwest, getting some more stimulus in the form of construction jobs. Or maybe he could use it as part of a larger energy plan, exchanging his approval for Republican support of long-term (instead of annual) production tax credits for wind, solar, and offshore sources of renewable energy. It would be more than a fair trade. The states that the pipeline would run through have overwhelmingly Republican elected delegations eager for jobs. They, too, stand to benefit from spending on renewable energy production in states rich in wind and solar resources. The President would get to look both bipartisan and pro-job.

If he doesn’t approve the pipeline, on the other hand, he would be seen as capitulating to a vocal, radical majority who prefer arrest to the democratic process. He would be seen as anti-job throughout the Midwest and would be throwing away a valuable bargaining chip. It’s possible that anti-pipeline activists would attempt to withdraw future support for his agenda. But they have no other alternative within the political system. They’ll find little sympathy in the opposition. The President is not up for reelection. Maybe they’ll motivate to push liberal candidates in the midterms, but that could only have a positive effect. An environmental movement that got more Democrats elected to Congress would gain much more political clout. And that, after all, is how democracy is supposed to work.

KXL has no link to climate change

More than a year ago I wrote a column for The Campus arguing that we should build the Keystone XL pipeline, and that it had none of the links to climate change that the protests appeared to be based on:

Would the planet and the atmosphere be better off without the additional emissions of carbon dioxide currently locked in the sands of Northern Canada? Absolutely – but that’s just not realistic; Canada has a huge pool of black gold within their national boundaries, and like anyone holding onto a valuable resource, they’re going to sell it … If the activists and protesters succeed, and Obama does not approve the extension of the pipeline, Canada will simply load the oil into supertankers and send it across the Pacific, where China will happily take it off their hands.

Not to mention the fact that a pipeline is a far safer method for moving oil than the other alternatives.

If anything, [rejecting the pipeline] will only heighten the risk of a catastrophic accident, for a spill would now be dispersed throughout the ocean, killing marine life and giving countless photogenic baby seals a new coat of oil. Meanwhile, the United States will continue consuming oil at ever-higher levels – we’ll just have to buy it from Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela, or our new friends in Libya.  Rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline will not lower America’s demand for oil by a single barrel. It will just restructure the world oil market to require more trips by tanker ships through fragile aquatic ecosystems.

With another round of protests, the pipeline is back in the news. The issue is no less of a distraction now, the kind of sideshow that poisons the well of compromise towards actual solutions. I’m impressed by the level of support that these activists – people like Bill McKibben who I know and deeply respect – have been able to gain. But it’s time to find a new cause. The way to reduce our oil consumption is not by restricting the ways that oil companies can bring their product to the market. They will find a way, and a buyer. The way to reduce oil consumption is by lowering demand through more efficient cars, increased mass transit, and alternatives to the internal combustion engine like hydrogen fuel cells. Let’s increase funding and research for that instead and make sources of oil like Tar Sands irrelevant. Continue reading