Per Capita Davis: More than one new year’s resolution

By From page A3 | February 07, 2013

It’s that time of year when couch potatoes put on their running shoes and the local gyms get crowded with good intentions and resolutions to, this year for sure, shed a few pounds and get back in shape.

It was encouraging to hear one of President Obama’s new year’s resolutions. In his inauguration speech, he stated: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

It sounds good. We’ll see how the Congress responds.

It is a fundamental question, in terms of the climate change discussion, of how exactly we manage the transition from fossil fuels to energy sources and systems that do not emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There is substantial momentum to continue “business as usual.” It took more than a mile to begin to turn the Exxon Valdez, and that lack of dexterity was one reason it crashed and caused an environmental disaster. What will it take to change course for the energy industry?

A recent news article spotlighted an interesting movement taking root on college campuses. It’s modeled after efforts back in the 1980s to put economic and public opinion pressure on the apartheid system in South Africa. Economists argue about the economic impact of the “divestment” movement but no one contests that it put the apartheid system on trial in the court of public opinion and removed the patina of neutrality from investment in companies doing business in South Africa.

Students at universities around the country are now asking their colleges and universities to divest themselves of investments in the fossil fuel industry, purging their endowments of coal, oil and gas stocks. The response from portfolio managers has not been very positive, with many (most) arguing that to divest would undermine their ability to maximize return on investment and compromise their core mission of providing funds for education.

Students at Harvard recently voted overwhelmingly for divestment; the administration’s response was that they appreciated students stating their views but the school had no intention of divesting. Still, the discussion has begun and is building at colleges around the country, and a very few have begun divestment.

There’s recognition among those proposing divestment that our economy, as well as the world economy, is built on fossil fuels and transition to a non-fossil fuel economy will take time. Bill McKibben, a leader of 350.org and an advocate for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has proposed interim steps for some 200 targeted energy companies that would make them good guys rather than bad guys in the eyes of divestment advocates.

First, stop exploring for new sources of fossil fuels. McKibben argues that existing known reserves contain more than five times the greenhouse gases to, if used, push us over the “carbon cliff” and subject the planet to the worst of the predicted adverse effects. As a corollary, he asks that fossil fuel companies stop lobbying against renewable energy and instead take the lead in developing a plan for transition to safer fuel sources.

Which brings me back to President Obama. He also knows how difficult it will be to move from a fossil fuel economy. He knows the forces invested in the status quo. And he knows the reality of opinion in Congress that would make it very difficult to enact meaningful legislation.

The last column bemoaned the fact that of all the “crises de jour,” climate change was still, at best, on the back burner when it came to policy and action in Congress. What little progress that has been made, such as the significant increase in vehicle fuel economy standards, was by executive order. But we need a game-changer, something that tells the country and the world that climate change is a significant problem and it requires significant action.

The president has an opportunity to set the tone of the discussion as he considers the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to bring crude oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. He does not need Congress for this decision; he can make it himself. If it is true that the fossil fuel companies have more than five times the fossil fuel the planet can afford to burn, then drawing a line against massive projects for further development of these resources would appear to be the smart, if difficult, thing to do.

The argument by proponents of the pipeline has been that it will create jobs. No doubt it will, but the number of jobs the industry claims will be created (hundreds of thousands) has been questioned by the U.S. State Department (about 5,000 mostly temporary jobs).

The bottom line is that our current situation (approaching 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) calls for more than one more new year’s resolution. Here’s to hoping that this time we see serious and sustained discussion, debate, and resolute action to address the issue of climate change.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of every month. Any more than that would bring gloom across the land. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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