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Paying It Forward

Posted on 23rd September 2014

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I see the news in this BBC article to be good news, but it raises some interesting points.

The article describes how the Rockefeller Brothers Fund plans to divest itself of its investments in fossil fuels and reinvest those funds in clean energy. It will do this along with other members of a consortium of about 650 individuals and 180 institutions. The total divestiture will be about $50bn. For some initiatives in clean energy, this will represent a significant amount of seed-money. For the fossil fuel industry, the loss of funds will be less drastic, as there will be plenty of other sources of investment to take up the slack. There will probably be a rise in the market value of clean energy stocks, and a slight and temporary fall in fossil fuel stocks.

The interesting thing is that this represents a decision to be ethical (in at least one important respect) in business. I made my position on this clear in my comments on Mark Carney's call for more ethics in business, here. My comments are supported by the fact that the membership of this consortium are pension funds, religious groups and big universities, so mostly not for-profit companies (the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is also not actually a classic for-profit company). Changing the rules (laws) for business to provide incentives for ethical behaviour (removing the penalties for it) is still a vital and urgent step, if we are going to save our planet and right some of the wrongs perpetrated by big business and non-transparent governments.

To highlight how important and how urgent the situation is, take a look at this BBC story. The main point in the report is, as stated in the headline, that per capita, China is now a bigger polluter than Europe. I wouldn't want those of you who live in Europe to get all cocky about that, because it is in part due to the "pollution elsewhere" impact of imports (from China, amongst other places). In the story is a quote from a scientist (Prof. Le Quere) with a nugget of information that everyone on the planet should be told: already the existing reserves of oil, gas and coal [if burnt, will produce emissions that cause us to] exceed the 2 degrees [global warming] target, and that this message has not been understood by politicians. "We have not accepted that we will not be able to burn all this fuel, the scale of action that is required has not sunk in."

If we are not going to be able to burn the fossil reserves that we already have, without destroying our planet, why are we spending so much money and effort exploring to find yet more reserves? Why is all that effort being put into developing fracking (a very polluting and energy inefficient source of oil) in North America and the UK? Why are people fighting over the ownership of oil-fields in Africa and the Middle-East, and not far off fighting over oil reserves in the South China Sea? Why are so many countries building new fossil fuelled power stations?

The answer to these questions is simple but depressing. We are going to burn those reserves, and much more, because we, the human race, are collectively too stupid to decide not to. Individual humans are clever; collections of humans are not: groups of humans do not pass most of the psychologists' tests of intelligence.