[Reader-list] Fwd: Climate change: how to make the big polluters really pay | Naomi Klein

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Fri Oct 17 21:52:13 CDT 2014

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From: Vivek Sundara. <viveksundara at gmail.com>
Date: 17 October 2014 22:42
Subject: Climate change: how to make the big polluters really pay | Naomi Klein

Date: 17 October 2014
Subject: From the Guardian: Climate change: how to make the big
polluters really pay | Naomi Klein

By dropping Shell, Lego shows new ways to target the astronomical
profits of the fossil fuel industries

Naomi Klein

Friday 17 October 2014

The Guardian



When the call came in that the University of Glasgow had voted to
divest its £128m endowment from fossil fuel companies, I happened to
be in a room filled with climate activists in Oxford. They immediately
broke into cheers. There were lots of hugs and a few tears. This was
big - the first university in Europe to make such a move.

The next day there were more celebrations in climate circles: Lego
announced it would not be renewing a relationship with Shell Oil, a
longtime co-branding deal that saw toddlers filling up their plastic
vehicles at toy Shell petrol stations. "Shell is polluting our kids'
imaginations," a Greenpeace video that went viral declared, attracting
more than 6m views. Pressure is building, meanwhile, on the Tate to
sever the museum's longtime relationship with BP.

What is happening? Are fossil fuel companies - long toxic to our
natural environment - becoming toxic in the public relations
environment as well? It seems so. Galvanised by the "carbon tracker"
research showing that these firms have several times more carbon in
their reserves than our atmosphere can safely absorb, Oxford city
council has voted to divest; so has the British Medical Association.

Internationally, there are hundreds of active fossil fuel divestment
campaigns on university and college campuses, as well as ones
targeting local city governments, non-profit foundations and religious
organisations. And the victories keep getting bigger.

In May, for instance, California's Stanford University announced it
would divest its $18.7bn endowment from coal. And on the eve of
September's UN climate summit in New York, a portion of the
Rockefeller family - a name synonymous with oil - announced that it
would be divesting its foundation's holdings from fossil fuels and
expanding its investments in renewable energy.

Some are sceptical. They point out that none of this will hurt oil or
coal companies - different investors will snap up their stocks and
most of us will keep buying their products. Our economies, after all,
remain hooked on fossil fuels, and affordable renewable options are
too often out of reach. So are these battles over fossil fuel
investments and sponsorships just a charade? A way to clean our
consciences but not the atmosphere?

The criticism overlooks the deeper power and potential of these
campaigns. At their core, all are taking aim at the moral legitimacy
of fossil fuel companies and the profits that flow from them. This
movement is saying that it is unethical to be associated with an
industry whose business model is based on knowingly destabilising the
planet's life support systems.

Every time a new institution or brand decides to cut its ties, every
time the divestment argument is publicly made, it reinforces the idea
that fossil fuel profits are illegitimate - that "these are now rogue
industries", in the words of author Bill McKibben. And it is this
illegitimacy that has the potential to break the stalemate in
meaningful climate action. Because if those profits are illegitimate,
and this industry is rogue, it brings us a step closer to the
principle that has been sorely missing from the collective climate
response so far: the polluter pays.

Take the Rockefellers. When Valerie Rockefeller Wayne explained her
decision to divest, she said that it was precisely because her
family's wealth was made through oil that they were "under greater
moral obligation" to use that wealth to stop climate change.

That, in a nutshell, is the rationale behind polluter pays. It holds
that when commercial activity creates hefty public health and
environmental damage, the polluters must shoulder a significant share
of the costs of repair. But it can't stop with individuals and
foundations, nor can the principle be enforced voluntarily.

As I explore in my book This Changes Everything, fossil fuel-based
companies have been pledging for more than a decade to use their
profits to transition us away from dirty energy. BP has rebranded
itself as "Beyond Petroleum" - only to back off renewables and double
down on the dirtiest fossil fuels. Richard Branson pledged to spend
$3bn of Virgin's profits finding a miracle green fuel and fighting
global warming - only to systematically lower expectations while
sharply increasing his fleet of aeroplanes. Clearly, polluters aren't
going to pay for this transition unless they are forced to do so by

Up until the early 1980s, that was still a guiding principle of
environmental law-making in North America. And the principle hasn't
totally disappeared - it's the reason why Exxon and BP were forced to
pick up large portions of the bills after the Valdez and Deepwater
Horizon disasters.

But since the era of market fundamentalism took hold in the 1990s,
direct regulations and penalties on polluters have been superseded by
the drive to create complex market mechanisms and voluntary
initiatives designed to minimise the impact of environmental action on
corporations. When it comes to climate change, the result of these
so-called win-win solutions has been a double loss: greenhouse
emissions are up and support for many forms of climate action is down,
in large part because policies are perceived - quite rightly - as
passing costs on to already overburdened consumers while letting big
corporate polluters off the hook.

It is this culture of lopsided sacrifice that has to stop - and the
Rockefellers, oddly, are showing the way. Large parts of the Standard
Oil trust, the empire John D Rockefeller co-founded in 1870, evolved
into Exxon Mobil. In 2008 and 2012, Exxon earned about $45bn in
profits, which remains the highest yearly profit ever reported in the
US by a single company. Other Standard Oil spin-offs include Chevron
and Amoco, which would later merge with BP.

The astronomical profits these companies and their cohorts continue to
earn from digging up and burning fossil fuels cannot continue to
haemorrhage into private coffers. They must, instead, be harnessed to
help roll out the clean technologies and infrastructure that will
allow us to move beyond these dangerous energy sources, as well as to
help us adapt to the heavy weather we have already locked in. A
minimal carbon tax whose price tag can be passed on to consumers is no
substitute for a real polluter-pays framework - not after decades of
inaction has made the problem immeasurably worse (inaction secured, in
part, by a climate denial movement funded by some of these same

And that's where these seemingly symbolic victories come in, from
Glasgow to Lego. The profits of the fossil fuel sector, made by
knowingly treating our atmosphere like a sewage dump, should not just
be seen as toxic - something from which publicly minded institutions
will naturally distance themselves. If we accept that those profits
are morally illegitimate, they should also be seen as odious -
something to which the public itself can make a claim, in order to
clean up the mess these companies have left, and continue to leave,

When that happens, the pervasive sense of hopelessness in the face of
a crisis as vast and costly as climate change will finally begin to

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