The highly influential environment activist Bill McKibben is proposing a fossil energy divestment campaign, on the model of the international anti-apartheid dis-investment campaign that successfully brought pressure on South Africa's white-only regime. McKibben (photo) was among the organizers who brought the planned Keystone pipeline to a standstill last year, and he has been the leading figure in 350.org, the global movement to roll atmospheric carbon concentrations back to 350 parts per million. (The actual level is edging toward 400 ppm, having been roughly 270 ppm in pre-industrial times.)
Even if you happen to share McKibben's alarm about climate change--and I, for one, do--his latest proposal raises a host of obvious questions: Is climate change really a moral issue in the same sense that apartheid was? Is it not more a practical matter of global self-defense? If we really think it is so unethical to make use of fossil fuels, shouldn't we all be getting rid of our cars and turning off our electricity, rather than target those who provide us vitally needed energy services? And even if it were unethical to use fossil fuels, would it make sense to penalize their providers indiscriminately? In terms of carbon emitted per unit energy, after all, natural gas is about twice as good as coal and gasoline is a good deal better too. So shouldn't we encourage the conversion of coal generation to natural gas, rather than declare natural gas companies beyond the pale?
Whatever one thinks about all that, McKibben would appear to be whistling dixie, as the American expression goes. Fossil fuels, bluntly put, are not going away.
According to the latest World Energy Outlook, published yesterday by the International Energy Agency, the United States will overtake Russia as the world's number one producer of natural gas by about 2015 and Saudi Arabia as the top global producer of oil by 2017. The IEA expects the United States to become fully self-sufficient in oil by around 2030--both because of higher U.S. production and because of tighter automotive fuel-efficiency standards.
Meanwhile, as a report in the New York Times reminds us today, because of China's and India's ravenous appetite for coal--still on balance, in most places, the cheapest source of electricity--that fuel's future is also assured. Thus, however as much the United States converts its power sector from coal to cleaner, lower-carbon natural gas, American producers will be able to make up for lower domestic demand with higher sales in global markets.
All that amounts to very good news for the U.S, economy but not such good news for the world as a whole, to the extent climate change is considered an urgent issue. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, said there is more need than ever for a world agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions and for development of carbon capture and storage technologies.