The Joys of Divesting from Reality (And Not Just Oil)

By William M Briggs Published on November 11, 2015

The following essay appeared in the must-read, just-released report Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels by Rachelle Peterson from the National Association of Scholars.

To Be Young (And Uneducated) Is Very Bliss

Imagine this:

Vladimir Putin sits as his desk doodling on a map of Europe. He erases Istanbul and is about to pencil in Constantinople when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rushes in and announces, “Mr President! The Rhode Island School of Design, enrollment 2,420 students, has voted to divest from direct investments in fossil-fuel extraction companies. They will sell all 1,000 shares of Gazprom!”

Putin sits stunned. After what seems like an hour he rises slowly, snaps his pencil in two, tears his shirt, and says, “I see now that I must do my part to save the planet. Withdraw the troops. Shut down all gas production facilities. When the snow melts in Siberia, slaughter the remaining cattle and install organic solar panels. And bring in that man that does face piercings.”

Something very like this little fantasy is playing out in the minds of thousands of college students and their spiritual guides (professors) across these once United States. How thrilling to believe that the mere selling of oil and coal stocks to eager buyers can topple the mightiest and save from certain doom our dear, living, breathing planet — Gaia herself!

Perhaps it isn’t the actual selling that brings such glorious frisson of excitement, but the idea that one is seen to demand the selling. It has become a traditon for students to seek attention over their support of noble and just causes, causes of unimpeachable purity. It beats the hell out of studying. Yet college students, by being students, are by definition ignorant of the subjects which interest them. Still, this ignorance has been no bar to claims of complete and total knowledge. Students not only know all the problems which beset mankind, they know all the ideal solutions. Students in divestment movements and the like no longer attend college to be educated, but to be assured that what they believe is true, to be told that feeling, ardency and sincerity are supple and adequate replacements for thinking. Professors are engaged not to explore topics in depth, but to provide support for sacred preconceptions.

It’s not only students, of course, but post-students, students who have been released into the wild and who have become environmentalists, activists, or simply those who deeply care. Strange thing about the concerned, though: they don’t care enough to learn physics. You couldn’t get one agitator in a thousand to define vorticity. Why? Have you seen how difficult the equations of motion are when developed into parcel theory on a rotating three-dimensional sphere? Those are nothing next to radiative transfer and the chemistry of isoprenes and other potential condensation nuclei as they apply to cloud parameterization schemes. And don’t get me started on coupled ocean-atmosphere dynamics!

Don’t get the students started, either. It’s much easier to memorize a handful of slogans and suspicious statistics and fill yourself with zeal than to venture on a four- to eight-year uphill journey into hard-core physics. Besides, learning is dangerous, a known killer of enthusiasm. Once a subject is learned in depth, unwelcome uncertainties arise. The old adage that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know is in force. Why, spend enough time with books and you could reach the point where others learn of your lack of total commitment. Next thing you know somebody is screeching “Denier!” in your face. Who needs that kind of grief?

So students and professors steer clear of difficulties and join protests instead, which are more enjoyable. They stamp their feet and weep and create a nuisance of themselves until they get what they want. Which is for their alma maters to sell their shares in oil, coal and gas companies.

To this end, the group Go Fossil Free, undisputed leader of all things divestment, has helpfully compiled a list of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, to be used by timid administrators and other social justice warriors to identify targets of their wrath. Some minor fun can be had examining this list. Top four coal companies: Coal India, China Shenhua, Adani (India), Shanxi Coking. Top four oil and gas: Gazprom, Rosneft (Russia), PetroChina, ExxonMobil. Notice anything peculiar? Yes: each of these, and most of the others on the list, have close ties to their national governments, if they are not owned or run by them. And most of them aren’t from the good old USA. Why is this important?

Divestors joyfully explain how their techniques brought South Africa to its knees, a boast which contains a kernel of truth. At the time of the moral panic over South Africa’s policy of apartness, in the mid 1980s to mid 1990s, it’s GDP was roughly 100 billion (in US dollars). Colleges divesting themselves of Krugerrands and so forth had the effect of a handful of mosquitos, drawing inconsequential amounts of blood. It wasn’t until the United States government itself jumped on board that divestment had any real sting. An Act was passed, and a presidential veto overridden, that disallowed new government investments and which constricted trade in a number of areas.

It’s a better than good bet the United States government, keen as they have been at appeasing environmentalists, to the point of using environmental concerns as levers to gain and accumulate power, will not simultaneously cut off all trade with India, China, Russia and other countries which rely heavily on fossil fuels. Which, except for the occasional African dictatorship, is all of them. Every American college can sell every stock directly connected to fossil fuel production and the effect on that production will be negligible. It’s not as if there aren’t buyers for these stocks, like there weren’t for shares in South Africa. Indeed, buyers will be pleased at the small decreases in price divestment selling causes. It will make fossil fuel stocks even more attractive.

These unfortunate realities will do nothing to dissuade the divestment movement, of course, which will peter out from exhaustion like these things always do. But just why are folks so worked up? Why do they feel (not think) that off-loading a few shares of stock will bring revolution? Because, they say, it will stop climate change.

Don’t Say Climate Change

Stopping climate change is impossible. It’s not that it’s unlikely, or that’s it’s a difficult task, or that we don’t have the political or social will. It is that it is impossible. As in not possible. As in cannot happen no matter what, no matter the purity of our hearts. It would be easier to build a perpetual motion machine than to stop the climate from changing. Noam Chomsky will wave an American Flag at a Fourth of July parade in Mobile, Alabama before the climate becomes immutable.

The climate on earth has always changed. It always will change. It has never, not ever, remained static. It cannot stand still. Orbital mechanics, the sun and the nature of the earth’s surface and bulk properties of the atmosphere are by far the largest and most important drivers of the climate. No number of college students can cajole a sufficient mass of administrators to pass resolutions strongly worded enough to cause the earth to stop varying in eccentricity, axial tilt and precession. No government can inflict enough taxes to halt the sun from changing its radiative output. And no bureaucracy can implement sufficiently Draconian regulations to cause a redistribution of land and sea fast enough to counter the effects of this sun-orbit conspiracy.

Incidentally, weren’t we promised global warming and not climate change? The two are not equivalent. The climate changes if the globe warms, but the climate also changes if it cools. We were assured the climate was going to warm, not cool. That the climate hasn’t warmed these past two decades led panicked activists into switching phrases. Don’t fall into their trap. Say global warming, not climate change.

Some sophisticated environmentalists don’t argue for stopping global warming, but for limiting warming to less than 2oC. This number is, of course, entirely ad hoc. Is it 2oC everywhere? Or in specific locales? Only summer? Or in the other seasons? Only for daytime temperatures? Or what? It is true 2oC sounds good: it’s a number, and numbers are what make science, and so 2oC sounds sciency. It isn’t: it’s purely political.

And there’s more: 2oC compared to what? A globally averaged temperature from some historical period? Which? We don’t know what the temperature was to any real degree of reliability before satellites were launched (late 1970s). The best we know is what the temperature was plus-or-minus. And those plus-or-minus bounds are not insignificant. The further we go back, the wider these get. The public isn’t aware of these kinds of uncertainties because temperature is always shown without the plus-and-minuses, as if there is no uncertainty. Even many scientists, for technical reasons having to do with misunderstanding the differences between model fit and model predictions of observables, underestimate uncertainty.

The key argument against the 2oC figure is we have no idea whatsoever how to reach it. And that’s because our understanding of how much influence mankind has on the atmosphere is certainly wrong. How do I know? I’ll tell you. Back in the good old days, every scientist used to swear by a golden rule, which was the backbone of the once-celebrated scientific method. This is the rule: if a theory can’t make accurate predictions, then it’s wrong. Climate models can’t and haven’t made accurate predictions. Not only can climate models not predict the future well, they are getting worse at their job. The discrepancy between models and reality is growing wider. Therefore, old timers would say, the theories which drive these models must be wrong.

Which theories are wrong? It’s not my job to say (though I’ve elsewhere with some colleagues had a stab at it, a foray that started a Congressional firestorm, which is a story for another time). The burden of proof is not on skeptics to perform the long-delayed autopsies. It is on those who claim their theories represent reality. It is an indisputable fact that the models are wrong thus so are the theories. That means we do not know how much of an effect mankind is having on the atmosphere. And that means it’s foolish to assume that we must only be having a negative effect and thus that we should “do something”. Doing something might cause harm, and we can’t prove it wouldn’t if we can prove how the atmosphere works to the level of detail required. The depressing news that we scientists know far less than than we should rarely makes the news. Like I said, who needs the grief that accompanies doubt? Climatology is now as much a branch of politics as it is science, and it is politically dangerous to doubt.

I do admire the brilliance, the genius of those who have orchestrated campaigns around “climate change”. Since the climate will always change, any change that happens can be said or implied to have been caused by man, or by a particular group of men thought most in need of political control. Even if we agree on the baseline temperature to compare that 2oC to, and even if we agree on how to measure current temperatures (locales, times and so on), and even if the temperature doesn’t increase as it hasn’t for almost two decades, there will still be changes in the climate. That means failing to meet the 2oC target can always be threatened. “Scientists say the potential of crossing the deadly 2oC threshold is significant, therefore the following measures will be implemented…”

Divestment is one of these measures. It’s now in its trivial stage, and it won’t progress beyond the trivial — as long as it stays inside the padded halls of academe.

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