The problem with fossil fuel divestment campaigns

Image: 350.org

The divestment movement may be strong at the University of Toronto, but at least one faculty member is hoping a newly-released Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP) paper that he co-authored sheds some much-needed light on the follies of post-secondary institutions ridding their investment portfolios of fossil fuels, and perhaps encourages well-meaning campaigners to direct their energies towards more worthy causes.

“Someone needs to remind activists and my colleagues that fossil fuels actually benefit,” Pierre Desrochers, associate professor of geography at the U of T, told the Daily Oil Bulletin . “It is one thing to decry their impacts, but it is like vaccines — some vaccines might have negative side effects, but overall they are beneficial, which is why we use them.

“I believe the world is a better place because of fossil fuels than if we had to revert to [energy] completely derived from stuff that grows on the surface of the planet as opposed to digging up the stuff that comes from beneath.”

Blowing Hot Air on the Wrong Target? A Critique of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement in Higher Education suggests divestment rhetoric is morally questionable, as it implies no consumer sacrifice.

It says that such campaigns are futile because achieving the goals would not impact corporate stock values or fossil fuel production. Such campaigns are misguided because drastic fossil fuel curtailment without alternatives would harm society and the environment.

Finally, according to the report, divestment campaigns do not speak to the economic, social and environmental benefits of carbon fuel and petrochemical products that currently do not have any substitutes. For example, fossil fuels make large-scale, reliable and affordable long-distance transportation possible, enabling improved nutrition, famine eradication, wealth creation, and advances in medicine.

“[Divestment campaigners] say that if we keep subsidizing education through investment in fossil fuels the students will not have much of a planet to live on, but the point I try to make is that most of these kids would not even be alive without fossil fuels to begin with. If you look at what life on earth was for human beings until fossil fuels came along two centuries ago, it was basically at most a billion people, and many were miserable," Desrochers said.

“Of course not everything is due to fossil fuels, but there is no way there would be seven billion people alive today with the current standard of living without carbon fuels.”