The first-ever Global Divestment Day did not live up to its billing. Although its supporters promised large sit-ins and demonstrations, participation in the United States was scant. At the University of Colorado Boulder, about three dozen students out of 30,000 showed up for a ten-minute rally. At St. Louis Divestment Day, only 10 people marched.
Yet those aligned with the divestment movement proclaimed success toward fulfilling their primary goal: To convince institutions to “break up with the fossil fuel industry” and sell their fossil-fuel stocks to fight global warming.
Although some institutions, including a few colleges and universities, have agreed to divest their fossil energy stocks, others have refused. For good reason. Historically, fossil-fuel stocks have provided an excellent rate of return, making them a solid investment opportunity for endowments.
Economic analysis firm Sonecon calculated that endowments composed of 2.1 percent of oil and gas investments in 2010–2011 generated 5.7 percent of their gains. During that period, investments in oil and natural gas company shares earned returns of nearly 53 percent.
Among those who have rejected students’ divestment demands are Harvard’s President Drew Faust and Tuft’s President Tony Monaco. When pressed to divest, Monaco stated he would “refrain from divestment ... because of the significant anticipated negative impact on Tufts’ endowment.” In other words, the students, both current and prospective, come first.
Yet college students have seized upon divestment as a cause celebre. Driven by idealism and inflated climate fears, they draw a negative correlation between fossil-fuel usage and societal well-being. Without saying it, they buy into the activists' line that fossil-fuel companies are “rogue entities seeking profits at the expense of people and planet.”
The opposite is true. As Alex Epstein has documented in his recent book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, oil, gas, and coal usage have not made a safe planet unsafe. Carbon-based energy has made an unsafe planet far safer.
A new study, based on empirical data rather than emotion, found that the societal benefits of carbon-based fuels outweigh the costs by a factor of 50 to 500. During the past 250 years, the use of carbon-based energy has doubled human life expectancy and increased global incomes11-fold.
Even fossil-fuel critic James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who warned about global warming, has stated: “Fossil fuels provided abundant affordable energy to today’s developed world, helping to eliminate slavery while raising standards of living.”
Yet misperceptions about fossil fuels persist, perhaps because there is little understanding of their chemistry. Crude oil’s naturally-occurring hydrocarbon molecules are a modern wonder. They can be used to produce a variety of liquid fuels for ships, trucks, cars, and airplanes, as well as heating oil, lubricants, feedstocks for medicines, and a multitude of consumer products.
Plus, fossil fuels are abundant, energy-rich, and affordable, making it possible for people around the world to switch on lights at night, have warmth in the winter, and travel via personal conveyances. They aren’t likely to give up such conveniences.
Plus, no other energy resources have the capacity to supplant fossil fuels. According to the Worldwatch Institute, fossil fuels provided a whopping 87 percent of the energy consumed worldwide in 2012. And the use of coal is on the rise. The International Energy Agency’s statistics show coal will outstrip oil as the most dominant energy resource by 2017.
The government-enabled spread of solar and wind power has only reconfirmed their significant drawbacks compared to consumer-chosen fossil fuels. They eat up taxpayer government revenues, provide energy only intermittently, and must have back-up power generation (usually natural gas) to be dispatchable on the power grid.
Biomass such as ethanol also has serious flaws. Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group calls government promotion of ethanol an “ecological disaster.” Electric vehicles are a mirage, too. EVs are uneconomic and also “emission elsewhere” vehicles, according to environmentalist Amory Lovins. The electricity used to power EVs comes from power plants, many of which burn coal.
By investing in publicly traded fossil-fuel stocks, colleges and universities are acknowledging reality. Fossil fuels are in demand worldwide and aren’t going away any time soon. Their investments in fossil-fuel stocks also offer tremendous potential for making education more affordable for students and their families.
With their critical-thinking skills, today’s college students should investigate both sides of the human-induced climate debate and recognize the value of fossil fuels to human life. With this homework, they just might tell their activist colleagues to find a new cause—even one of saving the environment from the environmentalists.
Bradley is CEO of the Institute for Energy Research and author of seven books on energy history and public policy. He blogs at www.masterresource.org.