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Editorial: Is the fossil fuel industry the nation’s No. 1 enemy?

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Posted on December 6, 2012 |
By Angelo Lynn



When Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz sent out an all-campus email earlier this week to say the college would take steps to consider divesting its $900 million endowment of stock in fossil fuel companies — about $32 million of which is invested in that industry — he joined the vanguard of a growing movement that is trying to put climate change back in the forefront of the national political agenda.

He’s also been observing his colleague, Bill McKibben, who has been touring the nation by bus on a speaking tour to campuses urging students to begin local divestment efforts at their respective colleges that target 200 energy companies. McKibben and his grassroots organization, 350.org, hope to paint the energy industry as a group of rogue companies no better than the tobacco industry, whose intent is to profit even as their product destroys others, or in this case, the planet’s environment. “This is no different that the tobacco industry,” McKibben said at a recent speech at UVM. “For years they lied about the dangers of their industry.”

What makes this effort more compelling than ever is what many are calling “global warming’s terrifying new math.” McKibben wrote a piece under that headline in Rolling Stone magazine this summer in which he lays out, as the magazine suggested in his headline, “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe.” The numbers are: 2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide, and 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

In brief, the argument goes like this: 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is the increase in global temperature that the political community could agree was the cap beyond which the world should not go without suffering dire consequences; burning fossil fuels that send 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the amount that would increase temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius; and 2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that would be produced by burning the known oil and gas reserves in the world today.

It doesn’t take a mathematical wizard to observe that there is five times the amount of gigatons of CO2 in known reserves than what it would take to send temperatures soaring above the 2 degrees Celsius limit. What may not be as obvious is that known oil and gas reserves are already calculated into a fossil fuel company’s list of assets — that is, it’s already figured in today’s stock price even though the fuel is still in the ground. It is fuel that they fully expect to produce and sell to consumers. Convincing those companies, and stockholders, not to drill and retrieve that asset, which represents 80 percent of current known reserves, will not be an easy sell.

In fact, the amount of money involved is staggering. McKibben writes that at today’s market value those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Keeping 80 percent of it underground, he notes, is writing off $20 trillion in assets (give or take a few trillion depending on how rough the numbers are and fluctuating values). That’s part of the terrifying new math.

Current consumption only makes matters worse. The world’s rate of carbon emissions has been growing by roughly 3 percent annually, and at that rate we’ll hit the 565-gigaton mark in about 16 years, or by the year 2028. At current rates, by the middle of this century the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol estimates the world’s climate will have increased by 6 degrees Celsius, or almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which, McKibben suggested in the Rolling Stone article, “would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

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On the political front, while President Barack Obama is far more environmentally conscious than a Mitt Romney or anyone from the Republican side of the aisle, and while he has embraced the production of alternative energy, he has also embraced policies to drill more oil and gas domestically in an effort to end the nation’s dependence on foreign fuel. That is, his policies are adding to the 2,795-gigaton stockpile of unburned carbon.

To counter the ineffective tactics environmentalists have been using for the past 30 years, McKibben notes that what is needed to make “rapid, transformative change” is a movement and what a movement needs is an enemy, “and enemies are what climate change has lacked.”

The fossil-fuel industry is just that, McKibben writes in the Rolling Stone’s article. “It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Tagging the fossil fuel industry as the bad guys is important if political action is to follow. Just like military leaders demonize the enemy, the voting public has to view the industry for what it is doing to the planet in a way that ignites the willingness to fight for change. Placing a direct tax on carbon waste, for example, could be an effective way to slow the growth of carbon emissions if the tax were high enough to effectively counter the harm done. As McKibben notes: “Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break — if you own a restaurant, you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the streets would breed rats…. If you put a price on carbon… it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming.”

That fight, which will no doubt be long and controversial, could also burst what some stock analysts concede is a fossil-fuel industry stock bubble fueled by record profits in recent years, and if that happens it just might mean that divestment today is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing.

Angelo S. Lynn

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