Want less carbon in the atmosphere? Start making it expensive
By Brian PJ Cronin
For years, David Strayer, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute in Millbrook, traveled to Albany to explain to lawmakers the dangers of invasive species.
His experience at the state Capitol was always the same. No matter their party, the representatives were always receptive. They got it. Yet the meetings always ended the same way.
“They’d say, ‘How come I never hear from my constituents about this, if this is such a big deal?,’ ” Strayer recalls. With global warming, “people aren’t making that connection that they need to be writing to somebody in Washington or Albany. Unless they get some letters, they’re going to work on economic development instead of climate change.”
In the wake of a contentious election, many Highlands residents are attempting to change the conversation in Albany and Washington, looking for large-scale solutions to the growing level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. Although the earth is already locked into a certain amount of climate change over the next century and beyond, scientists say there is still time to push toward a disrupted, but manageable, future.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a big push on the levers of institutional power to make that happen. One method is to make money talk. Investors can pressure companies to lower their carbon footprints, or risk losing their support.
Bevis Longstreth, a Garrison resident, literally wrote the book on the subject. A member of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Reagan (and a current member of the board of Highlands Current Inc., which publishes this newspaper), Longstreth explained 30 years ago in Modern Investment Management and the Prudent Man Rule how nonprofits, pension fund managers and other fiduciaries can make investments that best exemplify the ethics and goals of their clients.
Now Longstreth is at the forefront of the divestment movement, which urges institutions to divest from oil and gas companies unless they commit themselves to renewable energy. He was appointed in March by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the state’s newly formed, six-member Decarbonization Advisory Panel, which will advise Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on how climate change and the emergent renewable energy sector could affect investments made in the state’s $209 billion pension fund.
Longstreth argues there’s a moral obligation to divest from companies that are contributing to global warming, especially for institutions such as universities and states that are committed to the continued well-being of the people under their care.
“When you invest in Exxon, you are investing in the hope that you will profit from the sale of their oil,” he said. “That’s their business. So you are hoping to profit from further fossil-fuel burning, which means further carbon in the air, which means exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. And so to profit from that activity seems to me, to a public-spirited institution, or one that is entrusted with the protection of its people, to be fundamentally wrong.”
Longstreth understands the challenge of telling Wall Street investors not to pursue profits, although he points to studies that show the returns on oil are about what you get in the long term in the overall market. “Fossil fuels have been the spark plug for the economy we’ve enjoyed all these decades, so it’s hard to disenthrall yourself,” he says. “Imagine telling a Nantucket whaler in 1840 that you can’t go out there and look for whales anymore, because we’re not going to burn whale oil in lamps.”
Yet, in that case, less than 20 years later, crude oil was discovered in Pennsylvania and the whaling industry fell into rapid decline. Which leads to Longstreth’s second reason for divestment. Even if you remove the moral component, he says, in a world in which renewable energy is becoming cheaper and fossil fuels are in limited supply, investing in oil companies creates what he calls an “asymmetrical risk.”
“The risk is that oil is going to cease to have any value,” he said. “Here you have not just the natural economic forces at work and technology and advances in solar and other things, but you have the pressure of the world’s governments — except our own — pressing on doing something fast in order to hold the temperature down. So the risk of your investment having no value is extraordinary. And it’s an unacceptable risk if there’s no reward equivalent.”
A study published this month in Nature Climate Change suggests that even without government intervention, the “carbon bubble” will burst by 2035, sending the value of oil and gas companies crashing. “Someday very soon it will be imprudent, per se, to hold stocks in Exxon,” Longstreth says. “Just like it would be imprudent to hold stocks in a whaling fleet in 1860.”
For those without access to hefty institutional stock portfolios, there’s still a way to push industries to produce less carbon: Laws that make it expensive. That’s the mission of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL): To build the political will to enact a carbon fee in the U.S. of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with the fees distributed as dividends to every American household.
“The goal is not that this is the only thing that ever gets done,” said Sean Dague, a leader in a CCL chapter based in Beacon. “But a price on carbon makes every other effort to shift our economy to something cleaner go that much faster.”
Kate Stryker and Olga Anderson founded the Beacon CCL chapter, which serves House District 18, last year. After the 2016 election, “a lot more people decided that they wanted to get more actively engaged in citizenship,” Dague said. “We seem to spend a lot of time fighting over things at the national ideological level without talking to our neighbors.”
CCL’s members are building what Dague refers to as “grass tops” support. The chapter identifies influential civic leaders and institutions and seeks their support on carbon pricing, then uses that support to lobby federal leaders. “When you’ve built consensus at the local level,” said Dague, “it means your representatives have to follow through.”
Contacting those representatives is where Krystal Ford comes in. A member of the Philipstown Climate Smart Community task force, Ford joined CCL a year ago and a month later found herself in Washington being trained how to lobby for carbon pricing. She’s met with several members of Congress pushing for a bill, and on June 12 she will visit in D.C. with staff members of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democrat who represents District 18, which includes the Highlands.
Locally, Ford has been pushing school districts to put more emphasis on climate change by setting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing composting and recycling, teaching subjects such as outdoor education and climate justice, and partnering with groups like Hudson Valley Seed.
“We have school boards, whose members are elected officials, whose mandate is to look out for the welfare of our children,” she said. “And then we have all the other elected officials who are silent on climate change, if not in outright denial. If we can get school boards to say climate change is real, there’s a scientific consensus, and it’s a children’s issue because they’re the ones who are going to be most harmed by this, we can start looking at what we can do.
“It’s unfortunately a problem our children are going to inherit,” she said. “We need to teach them to be globally minded and civically engaged.”
Ford has already inspired eighth-grade students at the Garrison School to calculate how much money the district could save by switching to geothermal energy (a system in place in the Putnam Valley district), and sixth-graders to make documentaries about climate change. She led a group of eighth-graders on April 20 to a Youth Climate Summit at Columbia University, which prompted them to investigate how to introduce composting at their schools.
“It’s important for kids to realize that they have a voice and power,” she said. “I tell them: You can go to town hall meetings and talk. You can go to school board meetings and talk. People will listen to you!”
If young people don’t get involved, noted David Strayer at the Cary Institute, we will have to trust that the next generation or the next, will. “If we don’t start more aggressively on this stuff, someday your granddaughter is going to be interviewing my great-grandson and asking what we can do about climate change in the Hudson Valley.”