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Divestment is an empty gesture

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With considerable fanfare, Norway, the largest oil producer in the North Sea, has announced its (partial) “fossil fuel divestment.” The country’s $890 billion sovereign wealth fund intends to sell off stocks of companies mining or exploiting coal.

This is a great moment in Nordic hypocrisy, rivaled only by “neutral” Sweden collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II. Norway wouldn’t have $890 billion to finance its welfare state if not for fossil fuels. And while divestment chatter may provide some ideological conscience balm, it will have zero effect on fossil fuel consumption, and a negligible impact on energy companies’ stocks.

If Norway wanted to curb fossil fuel consumption, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, it would stop pumping oil and gas out of the North Sea. But that would involve actual sacrifice, as opposed to empty posturing.


Ironists will note that Norway is following the lead of the $870 million Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which last year decided to pare its portfolio of fossil fuel holdings, starting with coal and tar sands. Absent fossil fuel exploitation, there wouldn’t be a Rockefeller Brothers Fund – heck, there wouldn’t be any Rockefellers. The family fortune started with a trickle of black goo in northwestern Pennsylvania.

I wonder, idly, if America’s fossil fuel reserves were in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont, would it be so easy for right-thinking people to demand a halt to the economic activity that is the lifeblood of states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, North Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma? In coal country, they think the coastal elites have declared a “war on coal” because it costs them nothing to do so. Are they wrong?

Divestment chatter has been very much alive on college campuses, at least until students went home last week. Yale students upstaged their Harvard counterparts in April by getting arrested – you can watch the genteel affair on video – just days before Harvard students kicked off Divest Harvard’s “Heat Week.” That featured the equally well-mannered occupation of Massachusetts Hall, where Harvard’s president Drew Faust holds court.


Faust has pushed back against the children’s crusade for divestment, noting “a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.” Translation: How do you think we keep the lights on at Widener Library?

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pomona College president David Oxtoby, a climate change scientist, declared himself “a profound skeptic” of fossil fuel divestments, which he called “feel-good measures that have no effect on actual greenhouse-gas production.”

He noted that Pomona, like Stanford University, could have made news by divesting its coal stocks. But, he said, coal stocks “are mostly unappealing companies” that hardly figure in universities’ portfolios. “We could have made the same ‘divestment’ announcement without making a single change in our endowment — or a dent in climate change.”

Of course, if young people really wanted to strike a blow at fossil fuel consumption, they could set fire to the second car in their parents’ driveways. (I’m OK; my sons don’t read the paper.) But then how would they get to the climate change rally? Yet another of life’s complicated paradoxes.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.


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