When scientists first announced more than a century ago that our globe had started warming, some predicted that if we didn’t soon reduce carbon emissions there would come a sad time when our offspring would say, “Why didn’t you do something, Mom, Dad, Gram, Gramp?”
Fortunately, more and more people finally believe something should be done, their about-faces occurring in many cases because they have been affected personally by a catastrophe intensified by global warming.
Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev initially saw no need for his country to “cut development potential” to reduce carbon emissions, but when a record-breaking heat wave hit his country in 2010 and triggered wildfires that destroyed entire villages, he said, with sweat running down his face, “ Practically everything is burning! What’s happening right now needs to be a wake up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations … to take a more energetic approach to countering global changes.”
Unfortunately, politicians haven’t been very energetic, either globally or in the U.S., their collective actions in many cases being analogous to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, fiddling while Rome burns. Three examples of their slow fiddling: the carbon tax, government subsidies to “Big Oil” and tar sands oil.
First, carbon tax: Even though 85 percent of our economists believe that a carbon tax is a less costly way to cut emissions than increasing car-mileage standards, only a few countries and one U.S. state have instituted such a tax. If Maine Sen. Ed Muskie were still with us, he’d spearhead a national carbon tax and level the playing field for all U.S. businesses — a carbon tax on global warming emissions levied by taxing the carbon content of fossil fuels at any point in the product cycle of the fuel.
Second, subsidies: The U.S. government continues to subsidize fossil fuel companies even though that money would arguably be better spent on clean energy. Even President Barack Obama has said, “It doesn’t make sense for us to spend $4 billion subsidizing an oil industry that’s mature and very profitable.” Profitable indeed: Exxon Mobil is currently U.S.’s largest publicly-traded company by market value.
Third, tar oil: The mining process scars the Canadian landscape horribly; the processing and use of the oil generate far more pollutants than regular oil, and the oil is more corrosive than other oils, thus more likely to cause pipe leaks.
Before his 2012 election, Obama did put a temporary damper on tar oils by blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, but now? A Scientific American article in January points out that even though the International Energy Agency suggests that the production of tar oil “should not exceed 3.3 million barrels per day,” production of five million barrels per day has already been approved. NASA Climatologist James Hansen says that if five million are in fact are produced, it will be “game over for the planet.”
So, other than continue to pressure politicians to keep working on all of the above, is there anything we can do? Yes, says Eaarth author, Bill McKibben (350.org), who organized gatherings in 20 U.S. cities, including a sellout in Portland to catalyze a movement to address the climate crisis. He energized his audiences by urging that we join a campaign to divest from fossil fuels. Students, alumni and faculty of a steadily growing number (now nearly 300) of U.S. colleges and universities, including many in Maine, are signing petitions asking their trustees to divest from fossil fuels.
On Feb. 1, after 72 percent of Harvard’s undergraduates showed support for divestment, student representatives had their first meeting with trustees to urge divestment from fossil fuels. They warned, “The urgency of climate change necessitates immediate action. As our political system continues to be clogged with the power of the fossil fuel lobby, divestment bypasses the inefficient political establishment and declares that students and citizens will make a movement that will change the world.”
Trustees at four U.S. colleges have already voted to divest: Unity College in Maine, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and, on Feb. 2, Sterling College in Vermont.
Unity’s President Stephen Mulkey reasons, “Like the colleges and universities of the 1980s that divested from apartheid South African interests, we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our environmental portfolio.”
Some Hampshire College students wrote, “We are all tired of trying to work within the political system when far too many politicians are the lapdogs of Big Coal and Big Oil rather than guardians of the public interest.”
Sterling College’s president says, “It makes no sense for us to invest in companies that are wreaking havoc on our planet.”
Laurie Sterns Sproul, a native Mainer, is an alumna of Dartmouth College and the University of Maine, where she studied oceanography for a few years before turning to art for her career. She is now a woodworker in Brunswick.