Thursday, September 1, 2016

Divestment Speech

I wanted to speak against the fossil fuel divestment motion at the meeting of the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union) in September 2015, but was unable to attend the meeting due to sickness in the family. To assuage my conscience, I wrote up a little speech saying what I wanted to say and sent it to the local branch organiser. But I thought I would go one step further and post it here. So here goes:
Around the world there are over a billion people without access to electricity. These people disproportionately die of avoidable respiratory conditions caused by smoky cooking fires. They disproportionately die of water-borne diseases because they cannot boil water as readily as we can. Of food-borne diseases because they cannot store their food as safely as we can. Of every sort of communicable disease, because vaccines cannot be stored as easily without electricity.  They do not have the access to communication and education that we do - the access that we know is the single greatest factor for the empowerment of women and improved opportunities to be anything other than subsistence farmers.
These people are our equals. We have a moral duty to work towards a world where they have what we have. Their governments have this same moral duty. All over the world, governments are seeking to improve their citizens’ access to electricity. They are seeking to do this as economically as possible. In the real world, this still overwhelmingly means by generating electricity using fossil fuels.  Coal is still the most economical way to provide electricity. Providing electricity in a more expensive way means less of it is provided. If less electricity is provided, more people die, and more people live without access to educational and economic opportunities.

Globally, the majority of fossil fuel is produced by the private sector, rather than the public sector. This is because they are doing it efficiently. Producing fossil fuel efficiently means electricity can be provided more cheaply and fewer people die. Yes, there is significant environmental degradation associated with extraction of fossil fuels. Yes, there is exploitation of workers and their exposure to unsafe conditions. Governments have a role in ensuring companies behave themselves. The Media has a role in ensuring companies behave themselves. And, historically, shareholders have a significant and disproportionate role in ensuring companies behave themselves.
These people without electricity are reliant on burning locally-sourced biomass for cooking and heating and as such contribute disproportionately to deforestation and land-degradation. Two-hundred years ago New England in North America was almost entirely deforested. Fifty years ago South Korea was almost entirely deforested. Both these places now have very extensive forest cover, despite large increases in population, because their populations are no longer reliant on locally sourced biomass. Yes, if we continue to burn fossil fuels, it is likely that many habitats will be degraded in a hundred years. But if we, through some evil miracle, stop the private sector from producing fossil fuels, it is certain that those habitats will not be there at all, because they will have been destroyed by people desperate for food and fuel.
I do not have any fear of this apocalyptic vision coming to pass, because it is vanishingly improbable that our divestment from fossil fuels will bring the private sector to its knees. Divestment is not a strategy for effecting global change. What it is, instead, is a futile sentimental gesture that can only diminish the environmental and social responsibility of fossil fuel producers, by reducing the influence of environmentally and socially investors on their boards.

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