Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Divest from the fossil fuel industry

Pressure is rising from groups calling for investors to stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry. For example, Stanford University is divesting from the coal industry.

People have been saying that it's a bit like the anti-apartheid campaign, when the withdrawal of investments from South African countries brought the regime to its knees, but this may be a problem on a wider scale. Oil is the life blood of our economy and fossil fuel burning is currently our major activity, thermodynamically speaking. It's going to take some bigger, more fundamental changes to get to a world like in Star Trek, even though we already have the mobile phones, tablets and dress codes without ties.

While portfolios free of oil industry stocks are part of the solution, they may not be the whole answer. These companies are incredibly rich and powerful, and momentum will keep them going in the same direction. They are fed growth economics by the economy that they are feeding and making grow. Divesting from them may work, but there may still be enough money out there that will not ask questions beyond the annual income and return on investment.

Also, these companies are run by people who are not complete idiots. They have consciences, and they have children and grand children. They will be very aware that the polar ice is melting, because it's allowing them access to more fossil fuel reserves. Global warming actually means more access to more oil. And they have sharp scientific minds that will be able to join the dots to anthropogenic climate change. They will be well aware that burning the known reserves of fossil fuels will produce far more global warming gases than even the most conservative climate scientists predict is safe.

But as the quote from Upton Sinclair said back in the 1930s: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

What the fossil fuel industry needs to do, in the long term interests of the planet, is quite simple:
  • Plan a year-on-year reduction in production of fossil fuels.
  • Keep a fixed or increasing amount of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
  • Reduce the amount of fossil fuels sold to people who will burn them.
  • Stop wasting money exploring for new fossil fuels. 
  • Stop spending money trying to convince people global warming is not happening.

If the companies can adopt these policies, they will become more stable in the long term. Divesting from these companies may be helpful, but another tack is to encourage the shareholders of them to insist they include these policies. Since pension funds often have share portfolios, and share portfolios often have oil shares, this could be a lot of people.

Certainly, if companies in the oil industry change to these policies, they are likely to lose some of their lucrative business, but they will still have plenty of resources to manage. And anyway, there are plenty of companies that have managed to diversify into different businesses.

There was a company in Italy that used to make saddles, but branched into handbags, and is still in business. A stationery shop in Manhattan had been going fifteen years before changing their business to jewellery. And there's a company in Japan that had been making playing cards for around 80 years before it started making video games.

Thanks to http://www.bestoftheleft.com/