In defending Harvard’s investment in the fossil fuel industry, President Drew Faust writes that she sees “a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.” She finds it hard to reconcile “our pervasive dependence on these companies” with “a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.” In short, Faust argues that it would be hypocritical to divest from companies that we otherwise depend on. What is missing from this analysis is an understanding of how and why we have come to depend on fossil fuel companies in the first place.
While fossil fuels are our current source of “the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances,” their ubiquity has as much to do with political, and economic forces as it does with any inherent features of the fuels. Faust’s argument is thus, at its core, a tautology: because we are addicted to fossil fuels, we must continue to fuel our addiction. Placing the United States in comparative perspective with other modern nations reveals that our current level of fossil fuel dependence is not a necessity but a choice.
In Germany, a proactive stance on pursuing renewable energies has led to a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel dependence. Between 2002 and 2012, the share of Germany’s energy derived from renewable sources jumped from 7.8 percent to 22.9 percent. Meanwhile, Denmark’s government is pursuing energy policies that will leave it independent of fossil fuels by 2050 through a combination of infrastructure investments and behavioral incentives. By way of comparison, the United States has squandered its initial lead in renewable energy. While in 2002, the United States derived more of its energy from renewable sources than Germany (8.9 percent), the industry has grown sluggishly to a mere 12.7 percent in 2012.
The relative inability of renewable energy to gain purchase in the United States is largely a reflection of political inaction, which in turn is a result of the strong influence of the fossil fuel lobby on American politics. OpenSecrets.org reports that the electric companies and oil and gas companies are the fourth and fifth highest-spending lobbying industries respectively. They spent a combined $286 million on influencing the government in 2012 alone. Their primary source of political opposition, the environmental lobby, spent a relatively paltry $15 million in the same year. In light of this highly asymmetrical distribution of political influence, it is rather unsurprising that renewable energy has stalled in the United States.
Faust would have readers believe that the best path to sustainability is improved knowledge and technology. She touts Harvard’s achievements in sustainability science and research, but does not address the yawning gap between knowledge and practice in the United States. European countries are demonstrating that willpower, not information, is the true barrier between the United States and fossil fuel independence. Continuing to invest our efforts in climate research that has little chance of being implemented, while ignoring the structural barriers to its implementation, is the true “troubling inconsistency.”