Anti-Fossil Divestment Campaign Gets Traction

Goal may be misguided, but political effect could be benign

3 min read
Anti-Fossil Divestment Campaign Gets Traction

The campaign to force major institutions to divest holdings in fossil energy companies may be conceptually misguided and its ultimate goal utterly unrealistic, but it appears to be rapidly gaining traction. Yet if the ultimate effect is to accelerate adoption of a U.S. carbon tax--and, in the bargain, help clear our precious national airwaves of endless ads trumpeting the virtues of coal, oil, and natural gas--the ultimate effect may be benign.

"Spreading like wildfire, [the] fossil fuel divestment campaign [is] striking a moral chord," intoned Inside Climate News last week. "Divestment campaigns are now underway at 153 colleges and universities, large and small from coast to coast," the online publication reported. "The organizers expect to reach 200 after the winter break."

Bill McKibben [photo], the inspirational figure behind, has been "touring the country by bus, speaking at sold-out halls and urging students to begin local divestment initiatives focusing on 200 energy companies," TheNew York Times reported. The really big and influential colleges, to be sure, are keeping at a distance. No college with an endowment greater than $1 billion has endorsed the campaign, noted the Times.

We may be sure, however, that every senior-level college administrator and every fossil company CEO is keenly aware of the success similar campaigns had when they took on the tobacco industry and South Africa's racist apartheid regime. So, though administrators and executives may feel it is deeply wrong to formulate issues connected with climate change and fossil fuels in moral terms, they also know their feelings may turn out to be politically irrelevant.

Could McKibben's fast-spreading grassroots campaign prompt energy corporations to rethink their hostile attitude toward "putting a price on carbon" by means of a cap-and-trade emissions reduction system or a carbon tax? Might they come around to the view that the wiser course of action is to support pricing up carbon on a national basis, rather that face a constant barrage of unpredictable attacks from every side?

There are other reasons--quite a lot of other reasons, actually--to think the political fundamentals could shift in favor of a carbon tax. Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of a good book about climate change, sums them up in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine: among them, a Congressional Research Service report finding that a modest carbon tax could cut the U.S. budget deficit in half; a bipartisan Brookings Institution/American Enterprise Institute conference in which the idea was seriously considered; and, not least, a Wall Street Journal article reporting on that conference and related matters.

Bob Inglis, a Republican former congressman from South Carolina told the Associated Press that the idea of a carbon tax may be "may be moving [from the impossible]  to the inevitable without ever passing through the probable," notes Kolbert.

The idea is simple enough, as the Journal put it in its article: "Put a price tag on the harmful emissions from fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and use the revenues to fund clean-energy development, pay down the deficit or slash taxes." Just as important, as I emphasized in my climate book, a carbon tax penalizes carbon in exact proportion to its harmfulness, fairly: Because of varying carbon intensities (carbon emitted per unit energy produced), a carbon tax hits coal perhaps twice as hard as gasoline and up to three times as hard as natural gas. The effect of a tax is to encourage not only conversion from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy sources, but also from high-carbon to low-carbon sources--notably coal to natural gas.
This is not to belittle the political obstacles, starting with the Obama administration's own explicit position. It has said unequivocally that it will not propose a carbon tax, and no doubt it means exactly that. Remember, this is the same administration that made known on the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference three years ago that the United States not only would not join the Kyoto emissions-reduction regime, but that it would not "do Kyoto" while pretending not to. It did not, and it has not. No, no, no,
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