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Fossil Fuel Divestment, Middlebury College, and Vermont’s Future

Environmentalists are accustomed to losing. As Joan Baez put it, “little victories and big defeats.”

So when an influential organization actually makes the right environmental decision — and then goes even further — it’s cause for celebration.

So it is with Middlebury College’s truly wonderful decision to divest out of fossil fuels. The college’s commitment to slowly withdraw its financial support from fossil fuel companies means that it has, at last, joined the more than 1,000 entities — with total investments of over $8 trillion — that are in the process of divesting.

Divestment is designed with this purpose: to highlight the dangerously destructive practices of industries whose business plan is to extract and sell so much fossil fuel that the earth will undergo catastrophic changes. The point of the movement, as with earlier divestment campaigns against apartheid South Africa and Big Tobacco, is to socially stigmatize fossil-fuel industries and steer investments into more sustainable businesses.

In the case of Middlebury College this process may take a long time: 15 years rather than the five years most divestment efforts are taking. But presumably that timeframe was the price of getting unanimous support from the board of trustees. In any event, it’s likely to take less than 15 years as the college redirects the four percent of its $1 billion endowment, now in fossil fuels, into more benign investments.

Why does divestment matter? Here’s how Alec Fleischer and Gabe Desmond — two student leaders of the college campaign– put it in an article that ran in The Nation.

“The core business model of fossil-fuel corporations is simply incompatible with a sustainable future, of which we will be the stewards,” they wrote. “During our presentation to the board, we stressed how climate change already threatens students’ well-being. Extreme weather events, geopolitical uncertainty, and sea level rise are all slated to get worse as our generation moves into adulthood. We reminded the trustees that marginalized communities experience the worst effects of a warming world while contributing the least to the crisis.

“It is illogical to pay for students’ education by investing in corporations whose business models guarantee those very students will not have a livable planet to enact this education upon.”

The trustees’ decision, and thanks to the leadership of college President Laurie Patton, is noteworthy for several reasons.

First, the college was the birthplace of 350.org, the world-leading organization that fights climate change. It was founded in 2008 by several student activists and author (and scholar-in-residence) Bill McKibben. Divestment honors and extends that legacy.

Second, Middlebury is perhaps the only organization to have publicly announced it would not divest —and then change its mind. It’s a powerful precedent for other organizations that initially dismissed the campaign as a flash in the pan or too difficult to do.

Third, the decision is part of a larger plan to place the institution on a greener and more sustainable footing. It’s called Energy 2028, an ambitious program to transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources for heat and electricity on its core campus by 2028. The college also committed to reduce energy consumption on campus by 25 percent and to expand environmentally based educational programs.

These initiatives truly make Middlebury College a world leader. And they show what a well organized group of determined environmentalists can accomplish with time, effort and a sense of urgency.

The widespread media attention given to Middlebury divestment shows how influential this campaign may prove to be. But what about the rest of Vermont?

Our state has long since set a goal of reducing our carbon pollution by 58 percent, comparing 2005 levels to 2028. However, we’re nowhere near that. In fact, we’re on the path to miserable failure.

A new report commissioned by the legislature documents the challenge. But it also suggests how we can get close to the level of carbon reduction to which the U.S. committed in the Paris climate accord.

Why decarbonize? To avoid climate change at a level that will bring widespread hunger, enormously destructive storms, dangerous sea-level rise, mass migration, and the political and social destabilization that will accompany these horrors.

(A reminder: This scenario is not a scare tactic. Absent widespread decarbonization, it is the overwhelming consensus of U.N. reports and virtually all the world’s climate scientists.)

But is it Vermont’s job to worry about that? And how much can we really accomplish?

The short answer is that our state and every other First World organization really don’t have a choice.

Europe and China are making some progress toward renewable that reduce carbon pollution, but hardly enough. And with our federal government in the hands of dangerously ignorant climate deniers, we can’t expect action at the national level.

So it’s up to the rest of us.

The new report outlines both how hard it will be to reduce Vermont’s carbon pollution and what we can do to accomplish that. Central to success is a price on carbon pollution.

But that won’t be enough. Broad conservation and weatherization programs, along with a lot more renewable energy (solar and wind), have to be part of the mix.

The report also undercuts the bogus claim that reducing carbon pollution will hurt the state’s economy and its many lower-income residents. It concludes that with the right policies, pricing carbon pollution would protect lower- and middle-income residents financially and could in fact have a net-positive effect on Vermont’s economy — especially when health effects are considered.

This can be accomplished with “fee-and-benefit” rebates or lower electrical bills — the ESSEX plan — to cushion the impacts that higher carbon-pollution prices would have on some households. It may even be possible that as we raise the price on carbon pollution, we could lower the state income tax.

So what are we waiting for?

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