Adele Franks: Fossil fuel stocks a losing proposition for public
NORTHAMPTON — A bill that would require Massachusetts’ retirement fund to divest from fossil fuels, S. 1225, deserves our vigorous support. Introduced by Sen. Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield, the bill calls for a gradual selling off of holdings in fossil fuel companies over five years.
When I raise the issue of getting public funds out of the fossil fuel industry in conversation, however, some people stare blankly at me, or raise puzzled eyebrows, demanding explanation. So, here is the rationale, as my colleagues at 350 Massachusetts and I see it.
First, the fossil fuel industry essentially steals from the public by shifting its business expenses onto us. It makes huge profits but does not pay the true costs for the environmental destruction it creates (removing mountain tops; chopping down miles of boreal forest; poisoning groundwater and streams; despoiling coastlines; polluting air). It does not pay for the illnesses it causes. It does not pay for the carbon it discards into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. It does not pay for the impact of climate disruption on our communities, including property damage and crop loss resulting from increasingly violent storms. Communities pay the true price for all these harms.
Second, fossil fuel companies use their profits to buy influence on state and federal governments and use that influence against the public interest. Their political power assures them unfair advantage to continue to dominate the energy market with dirty energy, at a time when we desperately need to transition to clean, renewable energy. Moreover, the industry uses its political power to lobby against needed clean energy incentives. The fact that the fossil fuel industry receives government subsidies, which effectively add to its profits, rubs salt in this wound.
Third, the industry denies that it fuels climate change. It fails to acknowledge that 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned without sending average global temperatures spiraling beyond the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) limit for maintaining a habitable planet.
Fourth, fossil fuel is a risky investment, as economists predict that the “carbon bubble” will burst. When 20 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves have been nearly burned and climate disruption drastically worsens, the burning of fossil fuels will have to be dramatically curtailed, and the value of companies’ assets will plummet. Meanwhile, studies show that alternative investment strategies have equivalent returns.
Fifth, it is incongruous for the commonwealth to invest public funds in an industry so at odds with our values and our priorities. Massachusetts is a leader in promoting clean energy and clean technology. Why would we invest in an industry that undermines our efforts to transition to a clean energy economy?
Here’s what I believe divestment will accomplish: Drawing attention to the ways the fossil fuel industry works against our best interest will reduce the industry’s political power. Divestment is one important part of such an effort, much as it was in reducing the credibility, and political influence, of tobacco companies in the 1990s.
For this reason the fossil fuel divestment movement is gaining momentum — at this count at least 14 municipalities, five colleges in the Northeast, one national religious denomination and local congregations have pledged to take money out of fossil fuels and reinvest it in ways more in keeping with their values and moral principles.
If we do not act to diminish the nefarious political power of the fossil fuel industry, and transition rapidly to clean energy, our future looks grim. I am proud that Northampton’s City Council and Mayor David Narkewicz set an example by urging gradual divestment of Northampton’s funds from fossil fuels and endorsing the bill that will do the same statewide.
It is crucial for citizens to encourage their state legislators to support this bill. Enacting S. 1225 will make it clear that Massachusetts will not invest in a deadbeat industry that undermines our efforts to build a safe, clean energy future.
Adele Franks is a retired public health physician who lives in Florence. Information about S. 1225 can be found at 350MA.org.