On Tuesday, Columbus hosted one of the most prominent green activists today, Bill McKibben, on his nationwide “Do The Math” tour. For most of his career, McKibben has acknowledged the widespread deprivation his agenda would cause and tried to put a happy spin on it, but that’s not the message he brought to the Capitol Theater.
McKibben is on the attack full-time now, and his argument, on its face, is that it would be risky to use even a fraction of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves, so we should divest from fossil fuel companies.
But does his plan even make sense?
The top 10 companies with the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, with 71 percent of proven reserves, are all owned by governments like Iran and Venezuela. Divestment from investor-owned American companies wouldn’t solve more than a tiny fraction of the problem, it would just give foreign state-owned industries the upper hand.
As Ohioans know, those American companies are investing heavily in production of natural gas, the use of which is a substantial part of the reason U.S. emissions have been dropping.
If stopping that trend isn’t self-defeating enough for McKibben, get this: U.S. oil and gas companies invested $71 billion in the last decade in emissions-reducing technologies, more than the federal government’s $43 billion and almost as much as the rest of the private sector combined ($74 billion).
So what is McKibben thinking? Based on what he’s been saying lately, his real problem with American companies is less about their direct effects than that they’re an obstacle to his more radical politics: “The reason that it’s so great that we’re occupying Wall Street is because Wall Street has been occupying the atmosphere. That’s why we can never do anything about global warming. Exxon gets in the way. Goldman Sachs gets in the way. The whole fossil fuel industry gets in the way… The problem is 20 blocks south of here. That’s where the empire lives. And we’ve got to figure out how to tame it and make it work for this planet or not work at all.”
So what is “the whole fossil fuel industry” getting in the way of?
Nothing all that appealing. Looking back at his career as an author, he’s been trying to convince people that they’d be better off as poor as the people of Namibia, doing particularly labor-intensive farming, without air conditioning or appliances, without air travel or food grown more than a bike ride’s distance away.
But even McKibben admits that it hardly anybody could divest personally from the energy he hates: “There’s really no way for most of us to divest ourselves of fossil fuels in our daily life, completely,” he said. “If there is no train, you can’t take it.”
Then again, they do have trains in Europe, and punitive taxes on gasoline, but haven’t cut their emissions even close to the level that McKibben wants.
When the world had a billion fewer people, McKibben said that his preferred climate policy would allow each human being to
“produce 1.69 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually—which would allow you to drive an average American car nine miles a day. By the time the population increased to 8.5 billion, in about 2025, you'd be down to six miles a day. If you carpooled, you'd have about three pounds of CO2 left in your daily ration—enough to run a highly efficient refrigerator. Forget your computer, your TV, your stereo, your stove, your dishwasher, your water heater, your microwave, your water pump, your clock. Forget your light bulbs, compact fluorescent or not.”In other words, if McKibben had his way, he would have had to build a fire on the stage of the Capitol Theater and shout so that his previously middle-class audience could see and hear him.
Since none of them could or even would do that voluntarily, he wants the government to do it to them, and to us. His “math” adds up to enforced poverty.