Let’s start with the issue of climate change. I think the scientific consensus is compelling. The global climate and other fundamental aspects of global biophysical processes are changing and humans are a significant cause of many of the changes we witness. I believe human-induced global change is the most significant problem facing humanity today. We have an obligation to future generations to try to fix the problems we have created. The phenomenon of global change has been clear now for many years and we have collectively refused to confront this issue. You can see my preferred policy approach in an earlier blog.
That said, it surprises people when I refuse to sign petitions calling for various kinds of action that will supposedly address the global change issue. The most recent of these were the many petitions last year calling for colleges, universities, and public entities to divest of stocks in fossil fuel companies. An excellent example of the logic for this divestment movement comes from a group of Harvard Law School students (Harvard Climate Justice Coalition) who sued the university over this issue.
There are three reasons I think that fossil fuel divestment petitions not only will fail to accomplish their goals but also will be counterproductive. They lead us away from seriously addressing the issue.
First, it is not clear that having university endowments divest of holdings in coal and petroleum corporations will have any effect on the companies or their promotion of fossil fuel use. Assuming that a large enough number of endowment funds actually did divest, that might have a small effect on the price of fossil fuel company stocks. Such a share price effect would simply make the stocks more attractive investments for the many individuals and funds that were not part of the divestment movement.
Second, I do not see where the bright line is that makes fossil fuel companies the obvious target for such divestment, even assuming that divestment could affect company behaviors. Why not include automobile manufacturers, airlines, retailers, electric power producers, airplane manufacturers, convenience stores, parcel shipping companies, internet cloud server companies, or a host of other sectors whose business is inherently tied to the large-scale use of fossil fuels and thus are at the root of climate change? Coal , oil, and natural gas producers are easy targets but no more obvious a part of the problem than many other firms that are central to our high energy society.
The reality is that fossil fuel use is woven into the fabric of modern society and targeting the producers of fossil fuels is misplaced. The problem is much deeper and you and I are at the root of it. That is why petitions drives like those over divestment are counterproductive. Behavioral economists have identified the phenomenon in human behavior that explains why this is so. It is called moral licensing.
Researchers in the area of environmental behavior have noticed this phenomenon in a number of different realms. People do something that they perceive to be good for the environment, recycling for example. That behavior or action creates what is sometimes called a warm glow effect. That is, they feel good about having done something good. This feeling then gives them a sense of permission (license) to do something that they know otherwise would not be good. So dieters who have kept their calorie consumption low for a number of days feel justified indulging in a piece of chocolate cake.
In a large class I taught for many years at UMaine on environmental issues, I remember one student who was challenged by the idea that climate change might mean that we all should use less fossil fuel energy. She said to me after class one day, “I recycle, what more do you want from me!” Recycling, to her mind, covered her obligation for good environmental behavior and gave her license to continue other aspects of her life that might have adverse effects.
I think petition drives like the divestment campaigns have this very effect. They are an easy way for people to feel they have made a statement and contributed to solving the climate change crisis. Once the petition is signed they have done their bit for climate change. Ironically, no one asking for us to sign these petitions discusses their purchases of goods and services provided by the very fossil fuel companies from which they are asking endowment funds to divest.
The reality is that on average Americans are responsible for over 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. (This does not account for our methane, HFCs, nitrous oxides, and other greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to global change.) By one reasonable calculation, this level of per capita carbon dioxide emissions would need to be cut in half were we to make adequate progress on slowing human-induced climate change, just one part of the larger global change problem. Of course, to cut your emissions in half you would need to know what they actually are, which is why I developed a household carbon footprinting tool for estimating these emissions directly. Just knowing what emissions you are responsible for takes a lot more work than signing a petition.
So here is my deal. If you are no longer buying goods and services made from fossil fuels and your annual carbon dioxide emissions are less than 10 tons a year, come see me about signing your petition. We can talk. Otherwise, let’s get serious about the very difficult work that faces us in creating an economy and a larger culture that can exist on this beautiful planet without changing it irrevocably.