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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Go Down Fighting

Ithaca, a little city in Upstate New York, has done it. Seattle and San Francisco have done it. I hope that more of our local governments will be doing it, because when I started writing about potential catastrophic climate change some 13 years ago, I never thought that we’d go down with barely a fight. Most of us are going to want a record, some proof, that there were indeed lines drawn.

What these municipal governments have done is to adopt policies in support of public divestment in fossil fuels. Ithaca says it will not hold financial investments in the fossil fuels industry and urges New York’s massive pension funds to also divest and redirect our monies into financially safer, biochemically cleaner, socially responsible investments.

The new movement won’t stop the burning of fossil fuels, and it won’t undo any damage already done. It won’t change any national policy regarding carbon fuels. What it can do is critically important.

Many of us remember the worldwide movement during the 1980s to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa and corporations doing business with it. Hundreds of divestment resolutions passed in this country made corporations rethink the actual total cost of investment in that odious system.

Sooner than anyone predicted, the South African government began to recalculate the cost of staying the course. Divestment helped bring the regime to the table, and helped bring change.

The strongest argument against any divestment, particularly for large public institutions, is that holding stock and participating in corporate governance can be more effective in bringing about policy changes than merely bailing out in protest. This is not so with fossil fuels. There is no “reforming” of carbon in the atmosphere. Better policing of factory working conditions isn’t going to make things all better. There is an inherent conflict of interest in investing public funds in a process that appears to be threatening every other public investment.

The economics of fossil fuels no longer seem to add up. The laws of supply and demand no longer apply. Natural gas prices in the United States have crept up to about $4 per thousand cubic feet, which is still about half of what experts estimate it will take to make new hydrofracked wells pay for themselves. Production from fracked wells nosedives after only two years, so they need perpetual drilling to keep things going, until they can build new pipelines to high-price Asian and European markets. It’s pretty clear from the avalanche of advertising on television, especially daytime cable, that large parts of the oil, gas and coal industries are desperate for new investors.

Eventually, that music will stop playing. Stock performance affects pension costs and property taxes. Another crash, combined with the property tax caps, and we’ll be dismantling elementary schools for firewood. We have got to protect ourselves and our public investments by getting out of fossil fuels. It isn’t feel-good stuff. It’s business.

Half the world’s population was born in the last 25 years, and none of those billions of people have ever seen a month that was colder than average. Nineteen of the hottest years on record have occurred during that time. It took 1,600 years to form the Quelccaya ice sheet in Peru, and the last quarter century to melt it away. Some of us don’t care. If you have a young person in your life, you probably do. We are not prepared for rapid climate change and what it could do to every aspect of life in this country, from agriculture to real estate to what’s left of our public finances.

Some day, your kids may ask, “Where were you?” What will you say?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net