Prominent environmentalist and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben is coming to Sydney, to spread his vision of a fossil free world. This vision, as he carefully laid out in his recent Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece, is more about demonizing the fossil fuel industry—and getting them to shell out cash—than having any real impact on climate change. If anything, the jet fuel McKibben burns every time he undertakes one of his “world tours” to chastise other peoples’ carbon footprint, should make that clear.
The climate change “solutions” for which he has long campaigned vary from lawsuits against energy companies to pressuring pension funds and university endowments to dump energy companies from their portfolios. Both tactics are enormously problematic. These climate suits; like the one NYC brought against Exxon Mobil, Shell, Conoco-Philips, Chevron and BP in hopes of scoring a $US20 billion settlement, are based off of a highly suspect interpretation of U.S. law, have been widely considered to be more about ambitious politicians scoring political points than actually combating climate change.
Far from being the “huge step in the fight for climate justice” McKibben describes in his op-ed, the climate suits have been alternately called, “pure harassment,” a “threat to scientific inquiry and political speech,” and a “dangerous means of achieving its goal of reducing greenhouse gases” by a civil liberties attorney, Columbia University law professor, and State University of New York assistant professor, respectively.
None of this criticism has stopped McKibben from advocating for Aussies to pursue a similar tactic against the country’s coal companies. In fact, it’s his firm belief that “Australian coal companies should expect a similar fate.”
Legal arguments aside, there is another glaring issue; the energy companies that McKibben is so keen to target provide one of the best—immediately available—lower carbon alternative to coal, natural gas. Despite how quick activists can be to paint all fossil fuels with the same brush, natural gas produces 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal when used to generate electricity and less local air pollutants. By and large these producers, like Santos, recognise the science of climate change and support the objective of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Further, energy companies around the globe are some of the biggest funders of clean energy research, for example here in Sydney, Exxon (one of McKibben’s favorite targets) has partnered with professors at the University of New South Wales to improve solar technologies.
McKibben’s fossil fuel divestment campaign makes about as much sense. His idea, that by dropping their stocks in energy companies, pension funds and universities will “revoke the social license” of energy companies to operate is deeply flawed. At the most basic level, this strategy fails to account for the fact that once these stocks are sold… someone else can just buy them. Let alone the fact that by divesting from one of the world’s most profitable sectors pensions and universities will inevitably decrease their returns, due to a loss of diversification, compliance, and transaction costs. These are just some of the reasons why prominent renewables investors, like Bill Gates, see fossil fuel divestment as a “false solution,” in his words:
“My concern is that I love the fact that students and people care about climate change, and I don’t want to make them think that if they get people to divest that they’ve solved climate change.”
Suffice to say, we’re sceptical Bill McKibben is going to have any concrete and/or reasonable guidance to offer Australians truly interested in combatting climate change.