ON APRIL 22 — Earth Day — a group of Tufts students occupied the university president’s office, demanding the school divest from fossil fuel companies. After three days, they finally left, proclaiming some sort of moral victory but not having gotten the school to capitulate. A more fruitful target, perhaps, would have been the automobiles in their parents’ garages.
It’s easy to question the students’ tactics. For one, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy. The same students doubtless drive cars, ride the bus, and fly in airplanes, all powered by petrochemicals. Demanding divestment gives the illusion of clean hands without actually having to wash up. Of course, almost all of us who worry about climate change are hypocrites as well. Fossil fuels are ubiquitous and necessary. Yes, Al Gore would jet from country to country telling folks, basically, not to fly in jets. But how else could he get there?
One also wonders whether divestment would actually change anything. Sure, a university can sell its stocks in fossil fuel companies. But that merely means someone else — perhaps someone completely unconcerned about climate change — could buy those same stocks. One could argue that by being activist stockholders, universities owning fossil fuel stocks might actually be more effective in steering large energy companies to more aggressively explore new efficiencies, carbon-capture technologies, or alternative energies.
In any event, occupying presidents’ offices won’t do much to help the environment. What could? Conservation. A New York Times/CBS poll from late last year found most Americans now think global climate change is real, most believe it’s harming the environment now, and most blame humans for causing it. So you would think that we’d be doing everything we could to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.
Not so. Instead, sales of fuel-efficient hybrid cars and electric vehicles have plummeted, accounting for only 2.7 percent of new car sales. Even worse, reports Edmunds.com, a car-shopping website, folks who once owned those cars are increasingly trading them in for SUVs.
How can this be? Those in the New York Times/CBS poll also said that the United States should be willing to sacrifice some economic growth to protect the environment. Yet it appears hardly anyone is willing to make that sacrifice themselves. Talk about hypocrisy.
Maybe. But really, it’s just economics. A little over two years ago, gas prices were near $5 a gallon and seemed destined to go higher. Sales of alternative vehicles surged. Now gas is readily available for $2.50 or less. “For better or worse, it looks like many hybrid and electric vehicle owners are driven more by financial motives rather than a responsibility to the environment,” observed Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst at Edmunds.com.
One can bemoan our failure to follow our principles, but the move to bigger cars underscores another principle: We are economic creatures. When prices go up, we buy less of something; when they go down, we buy more. There’s only one way to get folks to use less fuel. Make it more expensive.
That’s not likely to happen on its own. There’s a glut of supply and new technologies, such as fracking, are making it ever easier to recover oil and gas (a geopolitical side benefit of which is that the US may soon become energy independent).
The obvious answer is to artificially raise the price of gas by imposing taxes.
It’s an old idea. Europe does it, which is why the price of gas there is upwards of $10 gallon (and why Europeans have smaller cars and drive less). It’s resisted in the United State by both the right and left: Higher taxes are seen as just more fuel for a bigger public sector and they also disproportionately hurt those of more modest means. There is a way around those problems however. Collect the taxes, but then rebate them back. People’s pocketbooks wouldn’t be any lighter, but they would still become much more frugal in their use of gasoline.
It’s a good solution — maybe the only solution. Rather than spending their time in sit-ins, it’s an idea college students might want to rally around.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.