Saturday, March 21, 2015

Climate Scientists Should Not Be Drawing Up Carbon Divestment Principles

I think this is a huge mistake:

They include academics at Oxford, Imperial College London and Harvard.

Prof Myles Allen, of Oxford University, said the move was similar to principles governing investment in South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s.

"This is a challenging question being put to universities," he told BBC News.

"We have the opportunity here to think about the most constructive approach to the divestment issue."
This will exponentially increase the concerns and crys about scientists having conflicted positions and a financial stake in the outcome of their science.

Amazingly, the BBC reporter didn't even broach this idea.

Large positions in carbon-free investment vehicles has already led to the marginalization of Al Gore. Now it will spread.

And frankly, I can't really blame anyone for thinking that about a scientist drawing up "investment principles." By participating in such discussions, they are invariably going to have (or appear to have) the inside track on who might adopt those principles -- mutual funds, retirement accounts, banks, etc. That gives them the opportunity to quietly shift their personal investments in response to that knowledge, and whether they do or not, whether they say they do or do not, it will raise suspicisions, and thus suspicions about their science.

Nor do climate scientists have the expertise to draw up investment "principles." That's for bankers, economists, investment houses, individual investors. What do they need to know besides "we need to eliminate CO2 emissions?" They're in a much better position to make decisions about how to most efficiently make that transition. I'm sure they have smart people who can do the energy and CO2 calculations.

This throws gasoline on a roaring fire, and in the US at least it will be used by opponents of action on climate change. And frankly I can't blame them one bit, insofar as it involves any scientists work on these divestment plans. (And it will give rise to suspicisons about all other climate scientists too, regardless of their nonparticipation in such efforts.)

I just don't get this at all.


Victor Venema said...

David, I am not sure if I understand your position.

You mean that the financial health of your university and the amount of pension you will get should depend on fossil fuel companies because then research with implications for our use of fossil fuels will be neutral.

Whereas when a researcher is independent of fossil fuel profits then this researcher would have a bias?

Wouldn't the reverse be more logical?

And knowing science, none of this matters for the results of research.

P.S. My Dutch pension depends for 10% on fossil fuels. I am quite sure that this 10% is lost if they do not get out soon. Thus I have a personal interest in my pension fund stopping this bad investment policy before it is too late.

If you believe in markets, there is also no downside: every stock should have the same revenue for the same risk level. Excluding one type of stock should not make the volatility much larger, especially as fossil fuel companies show large volatility.

John said...

David, ONLY if the scientists kept secret the knowledge they amass. However, science is the antithesis of insider trading.

NOR does any knowledge-based (remember Long Term Captial Management?) approach to investment guarantee success.

Ultimately, however, the "investment" in fossil fuels that matters is the world population's consumption level of it. Reduced consumption translates into reduced profit. Reduced profit translates into divestment of shares. If fossil fuel consumtion doesn't change drastically, financial investment advisories are naive grand standing.

In general, freezing oneself into inaction for fear of what the screeching radical-reich hypocrites will scream next is voluntarily putting oneself under their control ... as they intend.

John Puma

David Appell said...

Victor: I won't have a pension because I'm a freelance writer. :-(

I'm not making any statement about whether individuals or investment funds should or should not divest from fossil fuel companies. (Though large divestment, by lowering share prices, would make those shares more attractive for those who would invest without considering climate change.)

It's the appearance and potential for conflicts that concerns me. In the US, at least, I expect that appearance to create even more "skepticism" (or denialism) in an extremely politically charged debate among some people who don't follow the science but get their news from TV. We're an extremely divided country right now, politically, and that's having a significant impact on the climate change debate.

David Appell said...

John: I agree with what you write. But the story on CO2 is out there, thanks to climate scientists. Do we really need them, too, to tell investors how to invest and where? It's not their place or expertise. Leave it to smart and forward-thinking investment firms, energy economists, etc.

Also, how will divestment change fossil fuel consumption patterns? I have to buy gasoline and natural gas; I have no choice, except to drive less and turn down my thermostat. We need new, affordable technologies. If divestment gets large enough, would it force fossil fuel companies into transitioning to renewable energy? Perhaps. But, unlike the divestment that helped end South African apartheid, there is still ENORMOUS profit (or the future potential for it) in fossil fuels -- trillions and trillions of dollars. Look at Canada -- as soon as the tar sands got rolling, their environmental aspirations went out the window, and now get only lip service.

When I was younger a family near me who owned a couple acres of land were told there was a lot of coal underneath it. (Part of that land was an abandoned strip mine, which was a great place to ride bikes.) They sold the rights and got a few millions dollars, though all that property and forest was flattened afterward and nothing like its former self. My grandfather, who had a farm with 80 acres, also had his land tested for coal. There wasn't enough to mine, but if there had been I strongly suspect he would have sold those rights and let his much loved farm be leveled, for the sake of the money.

So how would divestment make Canada walk away from the tar sands? Exxon Mobil from their oil resources?

John said...

David: Divestment may NOT change consumption patterns, as I wrote above: "If fossil fuel consumtion doesn't change drastically, financial investment advisories are naive grand standing." I've been saying this for years on various blogs the majority of whose writers and visitors "should know better" and am roundly ignored.

But NO one should be intimidated by the screeching radical reich in this country.

If you and others are concerned that congress will react by (further) defunding climate (and all? other) science, then scientists and their supporters must work to vote into office those who can say at press conferences: "I AM a scientist and ... "

John Puma

David Appell said...

"But NO one should be intimidated by the screeching radical reich in this country."

Not as far as the science is concerned, certainly. But this is now a political fight, and that requires strategy to overcome your opponents. Scientists making investment plans looks conflicted, to me.

I fully agree with your last paragraph. I just read an interesting interview of Barney Frank where he made this point repeatedly (about gay rights, not climate change):