Divest. Separate. Win.

May 12, 2014

Go Fossil Free took a big leap forward last week as Stanford University announced that it will purge coal stocks from its endowment portfolio. And Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, in a commencement address at Amherst, set his sights on a “future free of fossil fuels.”

Divestment is more than a tactic in the climate battle. In a broad sense, it’s the whole game. Because what’s holding us back is our own money and power, turned against us. Our buildings and vehicles and 401ks siphon our money to our opposition and sap our will for change. We’re too invested in dependence on fossil fuels.breaking free

Of course the “real” solutions – the most important things we need to do – are the policy changes that will drive a clean energy revolution: steadily improving performance standards for energy production and use, clean energy R,D&D, and a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure investments that “lock in” dangerous emission levels. Above all, we need a commitment to do the whole job: responsible limits on climate pollution, and carbon prices that tell the truth about carbon costs.

We haven’t won enough of those policy changes yet because we’ve been stymied by the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel industries. And why do they have so much power? Because they’ve stolen ours, and they keep stealing it. The money they use to pay for climate science denial and opposition to climate policy is our money.

The fossil fuel industry does not have enough money or power by itself to stop climate solutions. It only wins by continuously arrogating our power and using it against us.

We buy and burn their product. We need their stuff to chill our beer, light our homes, and get from point A to point B, because they have systematically blocked the path to better alternatives. Our retirement savings are their capital pools, and only now are fossil-free investment vehicles beginning to emerge. We feed the beast because it’s hard not to, …because the beast feeds us.

This puts us in a compromised, confused, and ineffectual position when it comes time to break free. Harvard University President Drew Faust elucidated that position in her statement rejecting fossil fuel divestment.

“I find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”

Even as we resist the power of fossil fuels over our future, we underwrite it. We hesitate to fully commit ourselves to the fight because we are in some sense on the other side.

And wait, the circle gets even more vicious. We know we feed the problem, so we feel implicated. The cycle of involuntary complicity is locked in place with psychological cement: guilt. Zadie Smith explains in “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons”:

“I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us…

For both ‘sides’ are full of guilt, full of self-disgust…and we project it outward. This is what fuels the petty fury of our debates, even in the midst of crisis.

Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar — essentially religious — cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.”

This is the ultimate stranglehold, the perfect heist of our power. Instead of anger, we harbor regret. Instead of resolve, we exhibit futility. Instead of engaging, we evade. Instead of hope, we feel shame.

To turn this power-sucking cycle around, we need to divest. We need to take our money and our power back. We need to separate ourselves from what’s holding us back, so we can move on.

As a power-building strategy, divestment is particularly efficient, because it takes back power that we currently give away. It’s a two-fer: we get more and our opponents get less. And, crucially, we start to build the power that comes from getting clearer about which side we’re on.

Selling off our equity stake in the most egregious perpetrators of the climate crisis is a terrific way to start separating our own will, our intention, and our money from the problem. And since the fossil fuel industry wages war on truth in order to preserve our dependence, our institutions of higher education — which exist to serve truth — are the perfect place to begin divesting.

FAQs

If we divest our portfolios, don’t we have to divest our energy supplies right away too? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical to drive to the store in an oil-powered vehicle?

No, for Heaven’s sake, lighten up!  We start from where we are.  Every time we take a little of our money and power back, we make it a little more possible to get the rest. We move forward.   (But we draw a bright line against new, long-lived capital infrastructure investments that make the problem intractable. Like Keystone XL.)

President Faust’s “troubling inconsistency” is exactly the point of divestment.   The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions. Divestment presents a specific opportunity to reverse that commitment, to take some of our money back.   Should we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately? We’ll never get anywhere that way!

Should we feel guilty about our continuing complicity in the climate crisis in the meantime?

Feel whatever makes you most determined to stand up and fight for solutions. Maybe for some people that’s guilt. Not me; as the son of a Jewish mom, guilt just turns me into an adolescent. I pout and withdraw.

Personally, I’ll take freedom. I don’t beat myself to a pulp with recrimination every time I fill up at a gas station. But mostly I get around just fine on my bike and on transit. And I’ve got a 2-year lease on a Nissan Leaf, which I fill up with carbon-free Seattle City Light electricity. Now, I go to the gas station, fill up my tires, clean my windshield….and Leaf!

Do I feel smug about that? Righteous?

Not a bit. I still consume way more fossil fuel than the average human can if we’re going to have a future. I feel trapped and implicated and pissed because most of the practical, available, affordable technology and lifestyle choices still require too much fossil fuel.

But steadily, I’m finding more ways to shake free — fewer trips to the gas station, less carbon in my power supply, more ways to get the grip of climate-destroying fossil fuels off me, off my grandkids’ future.

And when I divested my 401k from fossil fuels, I stood up a little straighter, saw a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t affect fossil fuel stock values. But it deprived the coal and oil industries of some part of one person’s ambivalence and confusion and demoralization.

Am I saying that because I want you to feel bad if you haven’t done any of those things yet?

No. I just want to tell you how good it feels when you do. I notice a strong correlation between my divestment from the problem and my sense that we might win solutions. It builds mojo.

Yes, but that’s “just symbolic,” right? Isn’t divestment kind of a distraction when we should be devoting all of our finite resources to winning a comprehensive climate policy?

The road to big policy solutions is blocked. We’re having trouble clearing it in part because we’re standing in it ourselves. Map the power:

Why don’t we have a comprehensive climate policy now? Because the fossil fuel industry has too much power.

Why? Because they stole our power.

How? By blocking solutions so that every time we try to break free, we end up chasing our tails about “troubling inconsistencies.”

What will happen when we propose a cap and a price on carbon? Big Fossil will attack it with a $ zillion ad buy accusing us of raising gas prices, punishing poor people, stealing jobs. And it will work because we are stuck in a cycle of “pervasive dependence” on fossil fuels. Pricing carbon is too easily portrayed as blaming and penalizing us for living our lives.

How will we position ourselves to prevail in the face of that? By asserting our freedom, taking our money and power back. By establishing that the only way to avoid being the victim of high fossil fuel costs is to break free of them, and that carbon pricing is a vital part of how we cut the chains. The point isn’t to pay more for fossil fuels. It’s to pay — and need them — less. As the Metro Bus ads in Seattle say: Gas is cheap when you don’t use it.

For now though, they own us in part because we own them.

Hence, today, divest.

 


The “Inevitability” Trap

May 7, 2014

Paul Loeb has updated his terrific book:  The Impossible Will Take a Little While:  Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times.

I was honored to have a short essay in the original version, and sobered by how little updating it needed for the new version!

Paul includes the essay in his new post on Huffpo, here.  It’s a broadside against “inevitability,” a foot in the face of fatalism.Inev 2

Yes, I know there’s already a lot of hurt in the pipeline, climate-wise.  But the difference between what happens if we fold and what happens if we fight and win the clean energy revolution, is, well, all the difference.

We’ve just begun to get real about climate solutions.  The only way to find out if something’s inevitable is to fight like hell to change it.  Until then, “inevitability” is just a weak guess, a lame excuse, a gimme for the perpetrators.

________________________________________________________________

Here’s the piece:

The Inevitability Trap
By K.C. Golden

It’s time to rally around an embattled concept: free will.

Having aligned myself against a battalion of seemingly irresistible forces over the years, I’ve become a student of “inevitability.” How do environmentally destructive choices become inevitable? Near as I can tell, it starts when the people who will benefit from these choices simply begin to assert their inevitability. We’re especially receptive to inevitability right now. We’re comforted by the notion that amid all the uncertainty and confusion, from the economy to climate disruption — some larger forces are at work toward pre-determined outcomes. We’re sort of relieved to hear that something’s inevitable, even if it’s not necessarily something we like. It clarifies things. It’s more pragmatic to be resigned to the inevitable than to chart a new course through the chaos. Plus, it spares us the disappointment of pinning false hopes on dysfunctional democratic institutions–or working to change them. So the myth of inevitability spreads and the prophecy fulfills itself. If the proponents of a particular course can get a critical mass of folks to believe that it’s a foregone conclusion, pretty soon it will be.

Those who assert that conservation and renewables will never replace fossil fuels are using the only strategy available to them. They propound the myth of inevitability because they know that few of us would actually choose more waste, and eternal dependence on coal, oil, and gas extracted in ever-more risky and destructive ways. Having little chance of convincing people that these outcomes are desirable, they tell us we have no choice in the matter.

Think about the arguments that have blocked serious U.S. action on climate change. First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Now maybe it is human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway–never mind the American corporations whose manufacturing facilities get counted in their carbon impact. So we might as well shovel and ship their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. Responsibility is no one’s. Resistance is futile.

But inevitably we do have choices to make. Failing to make them consciously isn’t failing to make them at all; it’s just falling for the inevitability trap. It’s just giving ourselves an excuse for allowing the wrong choices to be made, and a feeble excuse at that. Among all the reasons for continuing to choose the path of evading responsibility for climate disruption, I think the least satisfying, the least noble, the hardest one to forgive ourselves for is: “It wasn’t up to me.”

Well, it’s up to somebody. Who’s it gonna be?

 

 


Denial on trial in Years part 3

April 28, 2014

For the record, I chose the title for this post BEFORE Rep. Grimm was indicted on fraud charges

Did the producers of the Showtime docu-series Years of Living Dangerously have to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement before airing their show? They should have, because it’s profoundly disruptive to the ecosystem of climate denial.

The third episode aired last night, featuring mind-bogglingly frank discussion of the political cowardice that plays such a vital role in the health of the denial ecosystem.

Much of the episode centers around the heartbreaking experience of Pat Dresch, a constituent of Representative Michael Grimm, who lost her husband and daughter in Superstorm Sandy. Grimm shows tremendous compassion for Dresch and a fierce resolve to expedite federal disaster relief, even when it means battling his Republican colleagues in Congress.

Grimm undergoes something of a conversion experience on the facts of climate disruption, after a riveting on-air conversation with former Congressman Bob Inglis. Inglis, a staunch conservative, lost his seat to a Tea Party candidate in the Republican primary for acknowledging the reality of climate disruption.

Yet after all that – the immense human suffering, the remarkably honest conversation with Inglis – Grimm steadfastly resists the idea that he should do something about it.

“There’s no oxygen in left in the room in Washington for another big debate,” he says.

“Political constraints are real.” (Inglis came out for climate action, and look what happened to him.)

“Washington is not real life. You’re talking the substance and the science… Irrelevant. Irrelevant!”

None of this is news. It was already clear that climate science denial in Congress is just cynical politics. Thinking Republicans avoid the subject like the plague, because they don’t like either of what they perceive to be their choices: talk like an ignorant science-denier, or face a bitter primary fight with a fossil-fuel backed Tea Party challenger (see Heads in the Sand.)

But last night, in living color, the backstory of politically-motivated climate science denial was the front story. You would like to think these things can’t survive the daylight. Denial is a nocturnal thing.

Yet Grimm remains resigned to the “political constraints” that prevent climate action. He will offer up more of his constituents to the harsh fate of still-preventable superstorms, rather than risk the political wrath of Big Fossil. He will fight for disaster relief again, but not for solutions, not for prevention.

The genius of the show was it allowed you to be furious at Grimm, and yet also to sympathize with him for seeming small, overwhelmed, caught in a political system that keeps him on the wrong side of history. The contrast between Grimm’s earnest passion for helping the victims and his lame excuses for Congressional inaction becomes excruciating to witness.

Finally, in his parting gesture of futility, Grimm says,

“I don’t think that humans in America, Americans, have the will to do it [tackle the climate challenge].”

We don’t know that yet. All we know for sure is that the fossil fuel industry has the will to stop us from finding out.  A lot of “humans in America” are still searching for the kind of leadership that will stand up for us and defend our kids’ future. The political market for such leadership remains largely untested.


How real is “political reality”?

April 16, 2014

With each new IPCC report, we find ourselves a little further out in the open water between the urgency of the climate crisis and the weakness of our response. But every time I think we’ve drifted hopelessly far from reality’s shore, Elizabeth Kolbert throws out a tether, like her terrific New Yorker piece making the case for a carbon tax. The crazier things get, the saner she sounds. She quotes F. Sherwood Rowland, who first diagnosed the threat to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons:pr 4

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

And in yesterday’s New York Times, Coral Davenport diagnoses — deadpan, Grey Ladylike — why Congress stands around and waits now:

“…[E]fforts to tackle climate change have repeatedly collided with political reality in Washington, where some Republicans question the underlying science of global warming and lawmakers’ ties to the fossil fuel industry have made them resistant to change. The rise of the Tea Party in recent years has also made a tax increase unlikely.”

Political reality,” indeed….not to be confused with plain old, unadulterated, physical, non-negotiable reality.  I know we can’t wish it away, but perhaps, as a tribute to the IPCC, we could stop dignifying it by calling it “reality” at all, or at least knock it down a peg with quotation marks.

Yes, yes, I know it IS “political reality” and we have to deal with it. And I suppose “political” mitigates some of the legitimacy that “reality” might otherwise imply.

But still, it devalues the currency to suggest there’s any respectable form of “reality” that accounts for how our political institutions are caving to the fossil fuel industry.  Maybe we should reserve the unyielding quality of “reality” for describing what’s physically true, rather than for our self-reinforcing judgments about what is and isn’t politically possible.  The former won’t budge, so the latter will have to.

Bold action is urgently needed.

Solutions are available and affordable.

We know what we have to do to unleash them.

Try explaining to your grandkids that there was some other “reality” that trumped those three. How real will it seem to them, compared to what they’re up against?


Very, Very, Veritas: Harvard faculty call for divestment

April 14, 2014

The campaign to divest Harvard University’s endowment from fossil fuels took a dramatic turn last week, as 93 faculty members joined students and alumni in the burgeoning Divest Harvard campaign with a powerful open letter.Harvard Divest 2

“Our sense of urgency in signing this Letter cannot be overstated.  Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate.  These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents.  And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life…

Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means.  The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests.  If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.”

The Divest Harvard campaign has emerged as a flashpoint in the climate movement, pitting passionately committed student leaders against a reluctant administration, caught off guard by having to answer for the consequences of their investments in fossil fuels.

Harvard President Drew Faust flatly rebuffed the campaign last October in a statement that may go down as a landmark in the literature of shirking responsibility for climate disruption. It’s like a Field Guide to the Most Common Forms of Ethical Evasion: Our Actions Won’t Make Any Difference; Divestment is Hypocritical Because We All Use Fossil Fuels; We’re Reducing Our Carbon Footprint Instead of Pointing Fingers; Divestment Would be Inappropriately Political for an Academic Institution (but Investment is Just Business as Usual); Engagement is The Answer[i].   Faust plays all the greatest hits, and well.

This generous elucidation of the excuses for complicity in the climate crisis has proved to be something of a service to the movement. By leaning into these arguments with a twist of indignation and putting them on Harvard letterhead, Faust presented a well-lit target. She kicked up the ferocity of the growing ranks of students, alumni, and now faculty who are refusing to accept these excuses.

I have never met Drew Faust. By most accounts she is a wonderful person – a humanist and a brilliant historian whose work includes some of the most penetrating historical treatments of slavery. She is not the villain in this story. But she has for now accepted and reiterated the villain’s seductive and pervasive narrative, a story that keeps us locked in a cycle of denial, shame, and evasion of responsibility.

Now, the students have disrupted that cycle. They have drawn a bright, morally coherent line. Harvard must choose whether it will continue to profit from the climate crisis by feeding the most egregious perpetrators with the resource that makes them unstoppable: capital to build the infrastructure that will lock us in to catastrophic disruption.

As mind-boggling as the climate challenge is, as complicated as the answers are, and as good a human being and university president as Drew Faust may otherwise be, the choice before her is now clear. This time, the eminent historian finds herself squarely on the wrong side of history. Her credentials suggest that she might cross over. But until she and the Harvard Corporation do, the light that students, alumni, and faculty will shine on this decision will only burn brighter and hotter.

Many words will be spoken about this is before it’s over. But none will be truer than what Harvard student Benjamin Franta said about the prospective victims of preventable climate disasters — our kids and grandkids:

“They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did…”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

[i] On this last evasion, ExxonMobil itself provided the most compelling possible rebuttal in its recent “carbon risk disclosure” statement. Bill McKibben paraphrases accurately here: “We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it.”  To further paraphrase:  “Engage this!


…and the horse you rode in on

March 24, 2014

Guffaw!


Must-read landmark in psychology of climate

March 19, 2014

“What were they thinking?”   We invoke this question on behalf of our descendants to shine a certain unforgiving light on the dissonance between our “understanding” of the climate crisis and our actions.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thought-provoking answer to this question than Zadie Smith’s essay in the April New York Review of Books, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.”Hedgehog messenger

Don’t let the title fool you.  It does have some moving nostalgia about the wonderful, local things we’re losing to climate disruption.  But that’s not what it’s about.  It’s about our failure to deal, and how we still might.  I’m not sure how much of it I agree with, but I find it haunting.

I quote the end at length.  Yes, it’ll give away the punch line.  But I bet once you read it, you’ll read the rest.

Oh, what have we done!  It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar – essentially religious – cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.  This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help – the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse.  In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved.  Like when the seasons changed in our beloved little island, or when the lights went out on the fifteenth floor, or the day I went into an Italian garden in early July, with its owner, a woman in her eighties, and upon seeing the scorched yellow earth and withered roses, and hearing what only the really old people will confess – in all my years I’ve never seen anything like it – I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 76 other followers