Why Divestment Fails

It is an emotionally charged issue, so let me add a few points to my NYT oped.

  • I am as unhappy as the divestment proponents about the state of our planet, the environment in general (overfishing, species loss, acidification, poverty and inequality, etc.), and the use of coal. (Natural gas is reasonable right now, even though it is a fossil fuel.)

    I think coal is a cancer. But, just as for cancer, I have no easy solution and I do not want to kill the patient. protesting against cancer will not cure it. neither will prayer. it requires real action to do something about it. In some cases, there are tradeoffs. In other cases, it is clear what we should do.

    Australian Coal Company Motto.

    We only differ in that I am more pessimistic in my assessment both of the effectiveness of divestment and of the likelihood of concerted world action. (I do not even think there is disagreement that energy, pollution, and global warming is not a U.S. but a global problem; and about the evidence that economically boycotts have never really worked and are unlikely to work here.) I would love to be proven wrong. I just fear that it won't be so.

    There is a risk that focusing on divestment could distract us from more effective approaches. Those in favor of divestment have their hearts in the right place. I hope they will recognize that so do I.

  • I believe humanity's best hope is cheaper clean technology, mass-deployed. This is actually more feasible than one may believe—though even this may take political will far beyond what governments can muster these days. My immediate hope is success on the following:
    1. small-scale solar panels for individual houses with LED lighting and mobile-phone chargers, avoiding transmission line loss overhead. Perhaps like this one.
    2. Better stoves and soot reduction efforts.
    3. Nuclear power plants "in a box," mass-produced, with 100% passive safety. Simple proponents of nuclear power have it wrong, too: Yes, we can control the atom; but we cannot control the human element (from negligence to malice). If shoddy maintenance creates risk, sooner or later another Chernobyl will happen. Perhaps some reactor like this one or this one. We are not there yet, but if we can get over NIMBY (at least in the third world), we could get there.

    And nothing is free. There are good counter-arguments to the above, too. Personally, I think that the benefits outweigh the costs.

By the way, Stanford CEE does good research on the subject. Stanford is already doing more than just divesting!