Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement, if Effective, Will Harm Students and the Poor

by Tracy C. Miller

Environmental activism among college students has recently been channeled into a movement to pressure college endowments to divest their holdings of stock in companies that extract fossil fuels. Beginning at Swarthmore College, the fossil fuel divestment movement (FFDM) has already had an impact on some colleges and universities, including Stanford, Georgetown, and Oxford. Many activists hope the FFDM will help persuade governments to restrict the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

Whatever the economic consequences for colleges and universities, widespread divestment, particularly if it leads to restrictions on fossil fuels, will do a great deal of harm without much benefit to the climate or the environment.

Proponents of divestment argue that keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius requires that total emissions of carbon dioxide not exceed 565 gigatons. Fossil fuel companies hold enough coal, oil, and natural gas reserves to emit 2,765 gigatons, according to a 2012 article in the Rolling Stone written by Bill McKibben, a leader in the FFDM and founder of the climate activist group An important goal of the movement is that those who hold coal, oil and gas reserves keep most of them in the ground, rather than selling them to be burned, so that less CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. This goal could be achieved if governments tax or restrict the extraction or burning of fossil fuels.

The FFDM is being promoted as a grassroots movement among college students who care about the environment. However, its organizational and intellectual framework comes from professional environmental activists and environmental organizations that train college students and put them forward as the face of the movement. Many students encountered the ideas behind the FFDM in sustainability classes sponsored by their colleges. Professors at two colleges gave students college credit for working on fossil fuel divestment campaigns.

...Since the FFDM’s ultimate goal is to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels, student activists would do well to consider what impact eliminating fossil fuels would have on their own lifestyles. Students are highly dependent on technology that uses electricity, 67% of which is generated from fossil fuels. Are these students ready to lose two thirds of their mobile phone use, social media time, radio, television and computer time, not to mention lighting and air conditioning and laundry machine use, unless they pay much more for electricity generated from alternative energy sources?

...Students should also consider the likely economic consequences of policy that restricts CO2. Proponents of divestment claim to be promoting social justice, but how many of them have heard or considered how inexpensive fossil fuel powers economic development that benefits the poor? How many understand the extent to which their high standards of living are the result of production powered by fossil fuels and that without government subsidies, the cost of alternative energy sources would be out of reach for lower income people even in wealthy countries?

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