"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Divestment as a Carbon-Reduction Strategy

As gas prices were dropping during the fall of 2014 throughout the U.S., sales of SUVs were picking up. That such drivers might find themselves with gas-guzzlers and high prices was apparently out of sight, out of mind. Moreover, that the increased carbon emissions might push the planet further from the habitable zone for humans was a point entirely missing from the mainstream media as well as office-holders. To the extent that some “socially responsible” investors selling off their holdings in or related to fossil-fuel companies was generally deemed to be a suitable approach to global warming, the overriding question may be how a species could treat its own survival as if it were an after-thought rather than a priority.

According to The New York Times at the time, “180 institutions — including philanthropies, religious organizations, pension funds and local governments — as well as hundreds of wealthy individual investors . . . pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies from their portfolios and to invest in cleaner alternatives. In all, the groups . . . pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios, and the individuals more than $1 billion, according to Arabella Advisors.”[1] Although these figures are by no means “chicken feed,” the overall imprint of such divestments pales in comparison to the assets in the American financial system, not to mention the global system of capital. The prioritizing of investors can perhaps be inferred here, with global warming coming up short—given its potential harm.

The divesting investors themselves were not convinced that their efforts would pay off climatically. According to the Times, “(t)he people who are selling shares of energy stocks are well aware that their actions are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the companies, given their enormous market capitalizations and cash flow.  At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, there [was] no equivocation but there [was] caution, [according to] Stephen Heintz, its president. The fund [had] already eliminated investments involved in coal and tar sands entirely while increasing its investment in alternate energy sources. Unwinding other investments in a complex portfolio from the broader realm of fossil fuels [would] take longer. ‘We’re moving soberly, but with real commitment,’ he said.”[2]

To the extent that other investors would simply swap up the holdings for sale, the “bad” companies would be “harmed” only marginally—certainly not enough to make a dent in their role in the carbon-emitting process. Moreover, “moving soberly” at a time when climatologists were warning that the global temperature would rise more than the 2 degree C threshold (beyond which human habitation would be uncomfortable at best) points to a major disconnect between even the diverters’ priority and the true significance of the problem.

Pointing to the complexity involved in unwinding a portfolio is itself an indication of misplaced priorities akin to a passenger in an airport risking his flight merely because he wants to finish the meal he has purchased. That such a passenger would likely be completely unaware of the foolishness of his decision may suggest that we as a species may be utterly unconscious of our individual and collective lack of perspective as concerning our own medium- and long-term comfort and the survival of our descendants. Indeed, by 2014, the survival of even the future children of teenagers could be hanging in the balance. Touting divestment as a viable strategy, or even part of one, leaves me with the impression that the human brain may be ill-equipped to grapple with its own propensity to put the species itself at risk.

1. John Schwartz, “Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity of Fossil Fuels,” The New York Times, September 21, 2014.
2. Ibid.