Climate Corner: Beyond shopping bags
News & Sentinel
Sep 16, 2023
After a month of climate-induced catastrophes across the world–so called “thousand year” floods in eight countries in just the past eleven days! –I’ve been feeling as though my efforts to avoid single use plastics or take my own bags to the grocery store are almost too feeble to matter.
The pictures are all the same: brown rushing water, bodies, smashed cars, ruined real estate, survivors who have lost everything they owned. People who contributed nothing to the problem wandering in shock.
How was it decided that the air, the water, and the earth under our feet can be owned and trashed for the sole purpose of making a profit, but we all have to bear the consequences of that destruction in polluted air, water, and a warming planet? That maintaining and expanding that profit justifies almost any action. Contributions to politicians ensure that fossil fuels development is expanded. This year alone the U.S. has approved $1.5 billion in fossil fuel financing, more than any other country, and we continue to break records in domestic oil production. We see corruption large and small: Just this week, it was reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that a front organization for the natural gas industry, the Consumer Energy Alliance, used people’s names without their knowledge on petitions to allow fracking in Ohio State Parks, including those close to us, Salt Fork and Wolf Run.
There’s no question the fossil fuel industry is the wealthiest one the world has ever known. Since the Industrial Revolution first used fossil fuels to produce energy, large economies have been driven by carbon-emitting energy, agriculture, and industrial systems. What we often overlook is the invisible financial underpinnings of the fossil fuel economy, such as banking, capital investment, and insurance. The financial world is being disrupted in an unprecedented way by the climate crisis.
For example, insurance companies are pulling out of states because the climate risk of fires and floods is too great. State Farm and Allstate will no longer offer property insurance to new clients in California. Farmers Insurance will no longer write policies in Florida. The National Flood Insurance Program is $20 billion in debt and had to raise rates last year, making it even more unaffordable.
This represents a profound opportunity for climate activists and gives us something more meaningful to do than remember our shopping bags. Campaigns for cultural, educational, and religious institutions to divest their investments from fossil fuels pull the legitimacy or permission bestowed by the community for the fossil fuel industry to burn and flood the planet. This is called the “social license to operate,” a term created by the mining and extraction industries in the past 25 years. “A social license to operate exists when a mineral exploration or mining project is seen as having the approval, the broad acceptance of society to conduct its activities…Such acceptability must be achieved on many levels, but it must begin with, and be firmly grounded in, the social acceptance of the resource development by local communities (Joyce and Thomson 2000: 52).” Rescinding this approval gets to the root of the climate crisis.
The divestment movement was sparked by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org when he said “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage” (McKibben, 2012). Divestment allows institutions to align their actions with their mission and values to restore a livable future. Divestment in higher education is the single most common activity among college students this year in climate action. According to the Guardian this week, more than 250 US higher education Institutions have divested from fossil fuels.
This is something we all can research and act upon, maybe in divestment clubs? Where do you keep your savings? Where is your pension invested? What about bequests in your will? How about your church? Community cultural and philanthropic institutions? You can find out about investment funds at fossilfreefunds.org. 350’s Go Fossil Free campaign is a good place to start if you want to pursue divesting or start a campaign. Stand.earth has the most comprehensive database , listing 1596 institutions worldwide which have divested more than 40 trillion from the fossil fuel industry, and is a great source of ideas.
We can reduce an array of carbon emissions through the ways we decide to spend and save as well as by how institutions transact, invest, and trade. Your retirement plan, your bank, or your credit card company may be funding the climate crisis but it doesn’t have to.
Jean Ambrose is trying not to be a criminal ancestor.