As we enter 2014, there is good news about our climate crisis, and there is the news we would rather not think about.
The good news is that this could be the year that citizen climate activism will build the global response necessary to stave off at least the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. There is increasing evidence, for example, that the fossil fuel divestment campaign is both growing, and having the desired impact. A study from the University of Oxford recently concluded that the campaign to persuade investors to take their money out of the fossil fuel sector is growing faster than any previous divestment campaign. Specifically, the report felt that, while the financial impact of the campaign would be small, it nevertheless can cause significant "reputational damage (that) can still have major financial consequences to coal, oil and gas companies." Citing examples from previous divestment campaigns, like tobacco and South Africa, the report noted that "Stigmatization, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain,"
Bill McKibben, who leads the 350.org divestment campaign, said "Severing our ties with the guys digging up the carbon won’t bankrupt them -- but it will start to politically bankrupt them, and make their job of dominating the planet’s politics that much harder."
As our December column, "Carbon Bubble," pointed out, the divestment campaigns have already exercised significant influence on the financial market by advancing the understanding that if we’re to have any chance of staying below the 2 degrees celsius, that everyone agrees we must do if we’re to avoid climate catastrophe, then 80 percent of the known underground carbon assets must stay there. "Leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, and the gas under the grass," as the 350.org slogan puts it.
Since financial markets treat fossil fuel reserves as assets, however, operating on the assumption that they will all be eventually burned, these assets become stranded if governments move to control emissions through such measures as carbon taxes. Anticipating such action, investors are increasingly viewing hydrocarbon investments as a bad risk.
Yes, we’re moving forward. But are we moving fast enough? Good news, notwithstanding, 2013 also had more than its share of bad climate news. Along with the latest grim report from the International Panel on Climate Change, there was other, even more alarming news from scientists describing how climate changes are occurring more quickly than they had earlier predicted, with impacts that are, and would be, greater than previously understood. Some examples included:
-- The 150 to 200 species that are currently becoming extinct every day, a rate 1,000 times greater than that of "natural" extinction, and why scientists believe that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history.
-- The Antarctica is losing ice 100 years ahead of schedule
-- The Arctic sea ice is declining 70 years ahead of schedule, to the extent that it is near certain that it will have completely ice-free summers by 2018 ( U.S. Navy researchers predict 2016). The dire consequences of this would include the release of methane trapped in hydrates (more about this in next month’s column).
-- The climate lag, itself, where it takes 30 to 40 years for greenhouse warming to catch up to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This means that today we are experiencing the carbon pollution from concentrations of greenhouse gas pollution discharged during the 1970s, which is responsible for all the severe weather events of recent years. What we need to keep in mind, however, is that since 1985, we’ve emitted as many greenhouse gases as we did in the previous 236 years. Hence, we’ve not begun to see the warming that this recent doubling of greenhouse gases will bring.
Clearly we face an unprecedented challenge. As a species, we’ve got to come to our collective senses about what we value most in life and to act decisively, now, to create the necessary public consensus for a serious reduction of global emissions. As McKibben stated, "This divestment campaign is just one front in the climate fight, but of all the actions people can take to bring about structural change, it’s probably the easiest." At this point in time, the divestment campaign is one of the best ways to build a significant popular movement.
Currently, this effort has spread to over 400 colleges, cities, and religious institutions in the United States and is growing quickly in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and across Europe. 350.org has published a website that helps to guide individuals through the process of personally divesting their investments from fossil fuels,
Additionally, there are two bills currently in the Vermont Legislature -- H. 271 and S. 131 -- that read, "An Act Relating to Divesting State Retirement Funds from Companies that Extract, Produce, or Refine Fossil Fuels." There is a state-wide campaign to get as many Vermonters as possible to sign a petition in support of these bills.
How can you help?
For one, sign the petition: http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/divest-vermont-s-retirement-funds-from-fossil-fuels.
Secondly, carry a petition around with you to get the signatures of family, neighbors, friends, school and work mates, and anyone else who is concerned about climate change. Contact me to have a petition e-mailed to you, along with further details.
Attend our Climate Change Café on Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m., at the Brooks Memorial Library community room in Brattleboro, where we will screen Bill McKibben’s inspiring film, "Do the Math," and discuss the divestment campaign. Finally, please consider joining us for the "break up with fossil fuels" action day at the Statehouse on Feb. 14.
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802-869-2141 and firstname.lastname@example.org.