Published March 4, 2013
The following items are installments of a three-part article from National Review Online.
Fossil-Fuel Divestment–Part 1
March 4, 2013
Slowly but surely, America’s free-enterprise system has been bleeding cultural support. To be sure, Occupy Wall Street’s open anti-capitalism flamed out, and direct challenges to the system are few. Yet appearances are deceiving. Just prior to the 2012 election, a series of polls showed the millennial generation (ages 18-30) about evenly split between positive attitudes toward capitalism and socialism. We needn’t take that support for socialism literally in order to recognize that America’s free-enterprise system is facing a legitimacy crisis, especially among the young. The manner in which millennials resolve their generation’s uncertainties over capitalism will likely determine the fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties for years to come. The millennials were pivotal in 2012, after all. So we need to keep an eye on them. Consider an issue that has so far gotten only limited media play, and yet offers a ready glimpse of free enterprise under cultural pressure: the campus movement to divest from fossil fuels.
In a referendum held in November of 2012, 72 percent of participating Harvard undergraduates called on their university to sell off the stock in any large fossil-fuel company held in the school’s $32 billion endowment, by far the largest in the nation. That vote drew significantly higher student turnout and support than a 1990 measure pressing Harvard to divest from South Africa, when apartheid was still in force. Indeed, the avowed purpose of the divestment campaign now sweeping America’s colleges–it was active on 256 campuses at last count–is to make this nation’s leading energy companies as repugnant as apartheid was. Ultimately, the goal is to drive America’s energy producers out of the fossil-fuel business.
Cue the eye-rolls. Oil companies may not win popularity contests these days, yet few of us want to prevent them from selling us fuel, much less to treat themas public enemiesfor doing so. Some might even suspect America’s big energy producers of performing the occasional public service–like, say, powering the economy, strengthening the middle class, and reducing income inequality by creating hundreds of thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs, securing our energy independence and thereby stripping rogue states and big-power rivals of the capacity to blackmail us with oil, and correspondingly reducing the need for American military intervention on foreign shores.
Never mind. Growing numbers of students are convinced that oil companies are, in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben, “reckless like no other force on Earth.” After all, in the face of global warming, our energy giants persist in extracting and selling us a seemingly endless supply of carbon-based fuels. The divestment movement aims to jolt into action a public allegedly in denial about catastrophic global warming. Once aroused by the academy’s urgent warnings, voters will supposedly compel Big Energy to abandon its massive oil, gas, and coal reserves and leave the vast bulk of them forever unused in the earth.
Silly as it may seem, we need to pay careful attention to what these young people are telling us. Fossil-fuel divestment is economics Lena Dunham-style: an embarrassingly naïve and apparently futile stance by those who nonetheless hold the power to swing elections and shift the culture. When nearly three-quarters of voting Harvard undergraduates elect to treat the companies that power our economy as pariahs, it’s time to take notice. Energy is so fundamental–in a sense, fossil fuels are the economy–that our climate wars increasingly serve as proxies for a battle over the status and even the existence of America’s free-market system. Look carefully at the fossil-fuel divestment campaign and you’ll find a new and potentially more damaging incarnation of Occupy Wall Street.
The country’s focus during energy debates naturally tends to be on President Obama and Congress, with the environmentalist Left treated as a mildly amusing or annoying sideshow. That’s not a good idea. President Obama will tell you only so much about what’s driving policies like cap-and-trade. Attention to the divestment movement, in contrast, explains where carbon taxes and trading schemes are actually headed. Once voters get the news, I doubt they’ll follow along.
The holy war on fossil-fuel investment was declared by Bill McKibben. His 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first full-length popular account of global warming (then called the “greenhouse effect”). Arguably America’s most influential environmentalist, McKibben has gathered a mass following, particularly among the young. Along with his group 350.org, he leads the campaign to block the proposed Canadian-U.S. Keystone XL pipeline project, the aim of that campaign being to prevent the development of Alberta’s rich tar-sand oil reserves, which cannot be mined or refined without releasing plenty of carbon dioxide. The name 350.org refers to the 350 parts per million the group considers to be the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently we’re at about 395.
Fossil-fuel divestment is the group’s latest effort. McKibben launched the divestment movement with a July 2012 article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which immediately went viral. (It’s currently at 125k Facebook likes.) McKibben argues that the official international goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above where it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution can be achieved only by leaving 80 percent of the world’s known oil, coal, and gas reserves locked away underground. McKibben’s piece paints the fossil-fuel industry as planetary enemy No. 1, blaming its lobbying and publicity efforts for America’s failure to put a price on carbon. Since writing off 80 percent of reserves would wreck the oil industry’s profitability, McKibben maintains that only government compulsion can keep all that energy underground–through a steeply escalating carbon tax, for example.
McKibben understands that divestment by itself won’t achieve this, since eager investors would snap up any stock sold off by colleges. His real goal is to delegitimize the carbon-fuel industry, thereby creating a mass movement with enough political power to bottle up most of our fossil energy resources, unused.
McKibben is a rock star. After his Rolling Stone piece went viral, he launched his 21-city “Do the Math” tour, selling out venues usually packed with fans of the latest pop sensation. Indeed, McKibben’s followers are largely the same 20-something crowd that crams those concerts. His triumpha
nt tour began the day after the 2012 election. So just as gobsmacked conservatives were mulling the need to win back the culture, McKibben was beating them to the punch, redoubling his already massive millennial following while supplying it with the latest leftist political and cultural project. If you want to know where millennial anti-capitalism lives, it’s here.
The other figure of note in the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is Naomi Klein. Long an inspiration for the anti-corporate-globalization movement that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street, Klein has been dubbed by The New Yorker “the most visible and influential figure on the American Left–what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were 30 years ago.” While agitating for reparations for slavery and colonialism in 2009, Klein was pulled in a new direction by a trip to the United Nations Durban II conference on racism. There she discovered that the reparations movement had dropped its polarizing label and had seized instead upon “climate debt” as a backdoor way of advancing global wealth redistribution. Since then, Klein has argued that, on a wide range of issues, hard-left movements can march forward far more effectively under banners of green than of red.
Drawn into climate politics by the reparations movement, Klein formed an alliance with McKibben and 350.org. She joined the group’s board in 2011, and worked closely with McKibben to launch the divestment campaign. McKibben invokes Klein in his Rolling Stone piece, and Klein joined McKibben for a portion of his “Do the Math” roadshow. The Klein-McKibben partnership signals an ambitious new political strategy–a joining together of the environmentalist and the anti-capitalist Left, Occupiers and climate warriors battling as one.
Consult the work of McKibben and Klein, and you’re struck by a divergence between their broader writings and the framing of the divestment campaign. The conceit of McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece, like the “Do the Math” tour it spawned, is that three simple numbers (the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit, 565 gigatons of safely burnable fossil fuels, and 2,795 gigatons of known fossil-fuel reserves) suffice not only to prove that 80 percent of the world’s reserves must remain unburned, but to identify oil companies as the globe’s true enemies. Simple, incontrovertible mathematics supposedly dictates both a goal of political action and a target for assault.
Fond of cloaking his complex moral and political choices in the appearance of physical certainty, McKibben has pointedly withheld several steps of his not-so-mathematical argument from his Rolling Stone readers. Yet those arguments are all in his books, where he turns out to be gunning for far more than cooler temperatures and lower ocean levels. He doesn’t merely want to save the world; he wants to change it, in ways that would be sure to put off many of those now signing on to his campaign. McKibben and Klein hope to radically transform our society and our economy, and it’s tough to say which is more disturbing: that their core followers understand this, or that their latest recruits do not.
In tomorrow’s installment of this article, we’ll have a look at the world McKibben and Klein are working for, after which, in part 3, we will circle back to the poor excuse for a debate over divestment that has played out so far on campuses and in the media. It’s time to turn the college divestment movement into an occasion for a serious discussion about the direction of this country.
Fossil-Fuel Divestment–Part 2
March 5, 2013
You may not have heard of the fossil-fuel divestment movement yet, but you will soon. While the campaign to have universities sell off any stock they may hold in large fossil-fuel companies is still in its infancy, the effort has spread to hundreds of campuses in just the past few months. This ambitious crusade to save the planet from global warming by crushing the world’s fossil-fuel producers is the brainchild of Bill McKibben, arguably America’s foremost environmentalist, and leader of the campaign to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the first installment of this three-part series, I traced the origins and development of the movement. Now it’s time to uncover the troubling ideology that stands behind the fossil-fuel divestment campaign.
Bill McKibben is against economic growth. America is flirting with another recession, and the agony of unemployment continues–especially among the millennials. That students should in such circumstances be flocking to the banner of a man who is hostile to the very idea of economic growth is extraordinary. McKibben breaks here with mainstream liberals as well as with conservatives. The core message of his 2007 book, Deep Economy, as well as 2010’s Eaarth, is unmistakable: He seeks not growth, but “controlled decline.”
As McKibben sees it, “our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse.” The last couple of hundred years of human history, he points out, have been “a very atypical time. A giddy time, high on oil.” Since the fundamental arrangements of modern life depend on fossil fuels, McKibben is convinced that averting global warming requires a winding-down of modernity. And that means trading our ideals of economic growth for a new ethic of economic retreat. McKibben is selling the idea that decline is good.
So does he want his student supporters to languish unemployed? Does he crave a new Great Depression? Not exactly. He is arguing for a return to relatively self-sufficient local communities, especially when it comes to food. Modern agriculture feeds huge numbers of people at a very low price. Yet industrial farming is carbon-intensive, from the fertilizers, to the combines, to the planes and ships that transport all that produce around the globe. McKibben wants to undo this system with a large-scale return to the land. Labor-intensive (rather than carbon-intensive) agriculture would form the nucleus of a new, quasi-peasant society. Relatively self-sufficient local farming communities would be protected not only from global warming, but from capitalism’s cycles of boom and bust.
It’s a sweeping vision, encompassing not only a return to rural areas, but a new, decentralized food-production system extending from the rural farms to suburban backyards to urban rooftops. Americans would consume pretty much only locally grown food. Many would go vegetarian, while the rest of us would use meat more as a garnish than as the center of our meals. Food would cost more, choice would be drastically reduced, and putting meals together would take a great deal more effort than it does today. Automobiles would become rare and expensive, and transcontinental and transoceanic air travel would largely be replaced by Internet-based video chats and cyber-tourism. McKibben even wants to develop local forms of money designed to keep goods close to their points of origin.
De-linking localities from national and global economies would reduce growth and spell the end of the consumer s
ociety. The fabulous array of choices provided by modern capitalism would disappear. Yet this unwinding of modernity and the associated sacrifice of economic growth are the prices we must pay to save the planet from catastrophic warming. Or so McKibben says.
Although he sometimes presents his back-to-the-future vision of an economically static and agrarian America as something we all need to adopt, his larger body of work suggests that this is the society he actually wants to create, global warming or not. McKibben is a communitarian leftist. He’s fine with wealth redistribution and reshaping the economy via regulatory decree, but what he’s really angling for is not Keynesian pump-priming but rather a government-primed revival of pre-industrial communal life. That world of tight families and interdependent neighbors, says McKibben, was far more satisfying than our hyper-individualist, consumer-driven, tech-saturated present. He explains that his attraction to this pre-industrial social model long predated his encounter with the “greenhouse effect” in the Eighties.
Knowing that McKibben is profoundly hostile to modernity on entirely non-weather-related grounds raises a question. Might his climate catastrophism have more to do with his yearning for a post-carbon communitarian utopia, and less to do with sheer physics, than he now lets on?
The Rolling Stone article that launched his fossil-fuel divestment movement gives no hint of what sort of society McKibben actually wants, or why–other than countering global warming–he might favor it. In the article, it’s all about “math,” and only one side of the equation at that. These days, McKibben has plenty to say about all the industry he wants to shut down, and yet he tells us virtually nothing about the economic and social consequences of that loss.
What McKibben now leaves unspoken may actually be the most important part of his argument. Yes, there is more to happiness than material possessions. Family, friends, and community are what count in the end, and capitalist modernity is often in tension with these essential human goods. Unfortunately, McKibben mischaracterizes the American way of life as a worship of possessions as ends in themselves. That is unfair. Meaning in America has traditionally come from faith and all that it elevates, including family and work. Moral balance does need to be restored, and yet we cannot repeal modernity. We’ll need to work with the modern world, not against it, finding ways to harmonize community and faith with the economy we have. Living in an increasingly isolating, secular, and materialist universe, McKibben’s young followers seem intent on turning climate apocalypticism into a substitute religion. That won’t fill the gap. You can run from the economy, but you can’t hide. And catastrophism alone will not a morality make.
McKibben understands perfectly well that abandoning the bulk of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves could spell the end of the American economy as we know it. In fact, he’s depending on it. Yet since awareness of his broader goals might prompt the divestment campaign’s foot-soldiers to think twice about what they’re fighting for, McKibben has apparently opted of late for artful silence on Life after Oil. This hole in his argument becomes a gaping canyon when we consider his other abandoned theme: peak oil.
Until just late last year, the notion that we are near or past “peak oil” was central to Bill McKibben’s thought. Peak-oilers claim that fossil-fuel production is moving beyond its high point. As McKibben put it: “The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full.” Peak-oilers warn that dwindling world oil supplies are sure to produce financial crashes, war, famine, disease, and mass death. That is why McKibben was not the only peak-oiler to recommend moving to villages to survive on locally grown food.
McKibben used to speak of peak oil and climate change in tandem: “[We’re] running out of oil and running out of atmosphere,” he wrote in both Deep Economy and Eaarth. In 2010 he claimed that the peak-oil thesis could no longer be denied. He even pointed to November 12, 2008 (when an important international agency seemed to accept the concept), as the day legitimate debate over peak oil ended. Keep that in mind next time someone tells you the argument over catastrophic global warming is over.
Just three years after McKibben consigned peak-oil denialism to the dustbin of history, peakism itself looks ready for the broom. Drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other technologies for tapping so-called unconventional oil have ushered in a new era of fossil-fuel abundance. And it has all followed the classical economist’s playbook. As oil scarcity forced prices up, technical innovations once too costly to consider increased supply. Mistaken end-of-oil predictions have been issued since the dawn of the industrial age. All have been swept away by technological breakthroughs driven by the law of supply and demand.
While a few peak-oilers hold out, McKibben himself seems to have surrendered. Not scarcity but fossil-fuel abundance is our problem, he now says. His divestment campaign is essentially an attempt to induce peak oil artificially, via political pressure.
Yet if McKibben’s peak-oil doomsaying was wishful thinking, the strategic calculation behind it actually vindicates critics of policies like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. McKibben (mistakenly) invoked peak oil because he (rightly) understood that at current levels of technological development, economic growth requires fossil fuel. Peak oil was his post-growth dream come true. Now that he has realized that there’s actually “too much” fossil fuel in the ground, his efforts to bottle it up are a last-ditch move to salvage his no-growth goal.
Eco-critics like Bjørn Lomborg and Jim Manzi have been highlighting the same trade-off as McKibben for years. Their core point is that the cost of paring back carbon emissions often outweighs projected benefits. In other words, carbon caps kill economic growth–with devastating human consequences. McKibben’s longstanding hope that an end to fossil fuels would spell the end of our modern, growth-based economies derives from essentially the same calculation. Unlike mainstream liberals, McKibben is forthright enough to acknowledge the anti-growth effects of his eco-activism–or at least he used to be frank on that score.
If McKibben now downplays his long-term goals, Naomi Klein lets it all hang out. Currently completing a book-length version of her incendiary 2011 article in The Nation, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Klein is open and in-your-face about her politics, just like her Occupy comrades. Conservatives, she says, accuse the climate movement of being a “Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” Klein happily embraces the anti-capitalist charge. She sees global warming as the greatest gift the American Left has ever received, an issue adaptable enough to confer an aura of scientific credibility on virtually every pre-existing hard-left policy goal. In her eyes, climate change creates the most powerful argument against capitalism since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
To Klein, conservative climate denial is nothing compared to the liberal pretense that climate action won’t tamper with the underlying logic of our economic system. She aims to turn that system “upside down,” and she tweaks liberal environmentalists for their “phobic” refusal to openly finger capitalism, with its perpetual quest for growth, as the root of our climate problems.
Klein wants a new kind of economy, heavy with taxes and regulations, an economy that resurrects “the idea of planning . . . based on collective priorities rather than corporate profitability.” How to pay for the expensive transition to this brave new economy? Simple, says Klein: Nationalize the oil companies. Someone is going to come up with an excellent reason not to call this socialism, I’m sure. Until then, I’ll just go ahead.
Yet if Klein is plumping for socialism, it’s not the old Soviet kind. That was industrial state socialism, every bit as obsessed with economic growth–and every bit as polluting–as its capitalist rival. Klein is looking for the same sort of no-growth, communitarian localism advocated by McKibben, and she means to use state power to achieve it. Want to put high-export, high-carbon farms and factories out of business? Just ration energy-intensive long-haul transport. Sure, the transportation system will be socialized, but it will be socialism on behalf of McKibben’s post-modern peasantry. In this scenario, food and goods will have to come from next door.
Funny, but none of this came up at Harvard last fall before the student referendum that jumpstarted the national divestment campaign, or in media coverage since. In the final installment of this article (to be posted tomorrow), we’ll have a look at the sorry state of campus debate over climate change and divestment, and what that tells us about politics and culture in America now.
Fossil-Fuel Divestment–Part 3
March 6, 2013
The fossil-fuel divestment campaign now sweeping America’s college campuses is a window onto much that is wrong with our culture and our politics. The fate of America’s free-enterprise system–long the engine of our prosperity and security–now hangs on a generation increasingly skeptical of the system’s premises.
Surely doubts about capitalism held by America’s 20-somethings have been greatly magnified by climate change. Yet it is not changing global weather patterns but the deteriorating climate of intellectual interchange in the nation’s academy–and the press–that has shaken the faith of America’s young in the foundations of our prosperity.
We have examined the course and ideology of the fossil-fuel divestment movement in the two previous installments of this article; this final installment is a case study of the debate at Harvard University, where decisive victory for a student referendum last November put tremendous momentum behind the national movement to have university endowments sell off their fossil-fuel holdings.
The quality of debate in the runup to that student-body vote was atrocious. America’s oil companies are incomparably reckless public enemies, we were told. We should abandon 80 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves unused. These claims at the heart of the divestment movement went virtually unchallenged. Campus critics of divestment instead went out of their way to praise the campaign as an admirable effort based on an appropriately dire assessment of the facts. Such criticisms of divestment as were offered were largely tactical: Sell-offs won’t work because stocks will be purchased by other investors, leaving the oil companies flush and Harvard’s endowment poorer. Well, yes. But the fantasy of a cost-free post-carbon economy went largely unchallenged. There was plenty of talk about the consequences of doing nothing, yet nary a peep about the costs of the so-called remedies. And although McKibben has been invoked repeatedly at Harvard–before and after the November vote–his highly controversial vision of America’s post-carbon future remains all but ignored, as does Klein’s.
Harvard’s divestment debate was also littered with apocalyptic disaster scenarios drawn from the most questionable studies. The numbers were trumpeted repeatedly in the Crimson and elsewhere without challenge. One popular claim, drawn from a New York Times blog post, was that unchecked global warming would mean death for six out of every seven inhabitants of the Earth–6 billion people. Yet the same blog post contains links to stories casting doubt on such lurid predictions.
A second prominent claim during Harvard’s divestment debate was that “the human death toll from climate change could exceed 100 million by 2030.” The number derives from a September 2012 study of climate change issued by a group called DARA, an international organization that advocates and facilitates “aid for vulnerable populations suffering from conflict, disasters, and climate change.”
The DARA study and the credulous treatment of it by the press were quickly skewered by critics. Bjørn Lomborg showed that the 100-million-deaths figure had been grossly inflated by combining projected deaths due to climate change with the much larger number of projected deaths from factors like indoor smoke given off when dung or straw is burned for home cooking and heating in developing countries.
A DARA official later conceded that several press reports had “misattributed our air pollution and other carbon economy death estimates to climate change.” Attempts to justify the report’s findings and presentation in the wake of Lomborg’s criticism seem strained. In any case, fossil-fuel divestment at Harvard isn’t designed to prevent Asian or African peasants from using dried cattle dung for cooking fuel. If anything, divestment would make it harder for the developing world to acquire safer cooking fuels like kerosene or pressurized gas. Yet DARA’s apocalyptic death projections were seized upon and touted repeatedly in Harvard’s debate–well after the 100-million climate-change death figure had been exposed and essentially discredited.
In truth, Harvard’s divestment debate was barely a debate at all. Objecting to the movement on any grounds other than tactical was clearly out of bounds. The exchanges amounted to a bunch of left-liberals strategizing among themselves. Is this the best America’s most storied university can do at exploring one of our great national controversies? No wonder those funny mass-death numbers went unchallenged. Raising perfectly legitimate questions about either the math or the premises of the divestment campaign would have left opponents liable to be stigmatized as climate-change “deniers” and abetters of corporate evil.
Harvard’s administration has contributed to this problem by turning climate-change activism into something close to official policy. Like many universities today, Harvard has an eco-bureaucracy–an “Office of Sustainability” with its own motto: “Green is the new Crimson.” The office is dedicated to making Harvard’s buildings more energy-efficient and to pressing lifestyle changes on students (e.g., drive less, consider vegetarianism). There are also “peer-to-peer behavior-change programs and initiatives” to forward this goal. There’s even a green holiday of sorts, the “Green Is the New Crimson Sustainability Celebration”; the first such event, in 2008, featured an address by Harvard alumnus Al Gore.
Harvard’s Office of Sustainability has even issued a guide for activists to use when speaking with “skeptics and opponents.” Would “opponents” include those who favor technologies of mitigation and adaptation over lifestyle changes as the most sensible approach to climate change? Harvard’s guide to dealing with skeptics bemoans the fact that about half of all mainstream news stories on climate change make a point of including opposing views. From the official Harvard perspective, climate change would therefore appear to be beyond debate.
Yet where does the Office of Sustainability draw the line? Is it legitimate for news stories to quote those who doubt that current models have rightly estimated the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide? Can news stories still quote those who have questioned the attribution of Hurricane Sandy to climate change? May those who would focus on tech-based solutions and economic growth in preference to lifestyle changes be interviewed by respectable reporters? And if Harvard would tolerate the inclusion of such views in media accounts, might it consider scaling back its intrusion into students’ lives?
Harvard’s Office of Sustainability may not have endorsed a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, and yet it’s easy enough to see how its activities could have put a damper on campus debate. How seriously does Harvard University take its core obligation to preserve a free marketplace of ideas on campus? Perhaps not seriously enough.
The divestment campaign hasn’t yet worked its way into the center of our national debates, although that may soon change if tactics now under consideration, like hunger strikes, sit-ins, and building seizures, go forward. The biggest publicity coup to date was a Harvard-inspired story in the New York Times, which helped the campus movement to spread nationally. Despite a brief, obligatory quotation from a petroleum-industry spokesman, that article was a virtual advertisement for the divestment campaign. And as at Harvard, the only real debate explored by the Times story was over divestment as a tactic. McKibben was handled with kid gloves; his hugely controversial no-growth philosophy never came up.
A couple of months after that piece appeared, the Times devoted its online “Room for Debate” feature to campus fossil-fuel divestment. The setup styled divestment a “worthy goal,” and the debate’s uniformly left-leaning participants tussled over tactics alone. Maybe the editors should have called it, “No Room for Debate.”
“But what about global warming?” you ask. Even if we don’t want to become postmodern peasants, even if peak oil was a myth, don’t we still have to stop using fossil fuels just to stop the planet from frying? No, we don’t. That’s why a real debate is so important.
Using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s own estimates, Jim Manzi has argued powerfully that the negative effects on economic growth of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes outweigh potential gains. This is not a case of “putting profits before people,” by the way, since depressing economic growth can very easily cost lives. Refrigerators holding vaccine in rural Africa need power, after all. A look at Manzi’s exchanges with climate activists ought to be required reading for any student considering joining the divestment movement.
Addressing climate change through technologies of mitigation and adaptation (prizes and small, well-targeted public and private grants to further demonstrated progress, not massive government subsidies) makes more sense than pulling the plug on the world’s economic engine. McKibben and Klein reject technological fixes, and yet if economic opportunity led to tech-based solutions for the seemingly intractable problem of peak oil, why not for global warming?
All this assumes the models behind the most widely quoted climate estimates are accurate. Increasingly, there is reason to believe that revisions may be in order. Sheer physics dictates that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has a warming effect. Yet the long-term rise in global temperatures has leveled off over the past decade or so, even as carbon-dioxide emissions have increased. While it’s possible that this warming standstill can be fully explained by confounding factors like atmospheric particulates and changing ocean currents, it may well be that climate is less sensitive to carbon-dioxide emissions than some current models hold. It’s going to take time to get a more accurate estimate of sensitivity levels, very possibly forcing significant revisions in Bill McKibben’s math.
In short, it’s possible to agree that carbon-dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels are having an impact on the climate, while still raising legitimate questions about the extent of that impact, as well as about the data upon which our estimates are based. (Here’s an inconclusive yet interesting example of a question about basic data.)
Economic growth and the technological innovation that drives it have long been bulwarks of our domestic tranquillity and national security. Enlarging the pie for everyone prevents politics from devolving into nasty zero-sum squabbles over redistributing wealth. Growth also keeps us strong enough to hold external threats at bay. Do we really want to surrender this time-tested recipe for social peace and international success?
The creators of the divestment movement would like us to do just that. Whether their young followers recognize it or not, the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is tailor-made to discredit America’s economic system. Turning oil companies into murderous monsters and shutting off the energy that drives our prosperity is a roundabout way of undercutting capitalism itself, as the divestment campaign’s sponsors well understand. To accede to these propositions without serious debate is to cheat ourselves and our posterity, while betraying the very principles of intellectual exchange upon which liberal education rests.
The campus fossil-fuel divestment campaign tells us plenty about the direction of this country right now. Conserva
tives warn that Democrat-supported initiatives like Obamacare and cap-and-trade will inhibit economic growth and tamper with our freedoms in profound and dangerous ways. Democrats dismiss such talk, yet do little to count up the costs. The occasional imprudent voice on the left can’t help bragging that conservatives are right about what stands on the other side of our ongoing transformation, yet most play it smart by playing dumb.
McKibben straddles the line. Although he has long insisted that the death of fossil fuels would spell an end to economic growth, the kid-gloves treatment he now receives in the liberal press downplays such talk. McKibben seems happy to oblige, perhaps understanding that success for his divestment campaign would do more to advance a post-growth society than any mere lecture or book.
Millennials, meanwhile, are in a bit of a haze. Their support for an expanded entitlement state and an end to fossil fuels threatens to render their employment woes permanent and their tax burdens unsustainable. Yet they have barely considered what is at stake. How could they, when the press won’t cover the conflicts? With a monolithically leftist faculty, and conservatives viewed as either dangerously uncool or outright genocidal, campus debate over such issues has all but disappeared.
Conservatives rightly want to win back the culture, especially among the young. The problem is that many millennials aren’t waiting to carefully consider earnest arguments from both sides about what sort of society we should want. They’ve swallowed the Left’s caricature of the Right, more out of the need for a secular religion or as a matter of fashion than from due consideration of the issues. That will be tough to reverse.
The fossil-fuel divestment campaign will test the capacity of our politics, our press, our universities, and our young people for thoughtful debate on serious issues. The results so far are disappointing.
-Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.