Don’t sell. Buy!

On Sunday September 21, over 300,000 people rallied in Manhattan at the People’s Climate March. Basically a feel-good event designed to spotlight popular concerns about anthropogenic global warming, the Marchers failed in at least one respect, they were pointedly ignored by the pundit-driven morning political talk shows that aired as the event was getting underway.

Possibly anticipating that the media elites would snub them, some participants went beyond peaceful marching the following day at Flood Wall Street. The Flooders clashed with police who arrested some – apparently according to plan. Unlike the Marchers who did not espouse any particular solution or set of solutions, a central tactic of the Flooders is to cajole wealthy liberals to stop investing in carbon-based energy companies.

Perhaps the highest profile divestor is the Rockefeller family which is moving its nearly one billion dollar philanthropic organization slowly but purposefully out of companies that extract, produce, or distribute fossil fuels.  Some wealthy universities, including Stanford, are also taking fitful steps away from investing in fossil fuels.

Interestingly, Donald P. Gould, a trustee and chair of Pitzer University’s investment committee acknowledged that the effect of divestment on extractors would be minimal. But in the long term, he said, “divestment seeks to work indirectly on these companies by changing the conversation about the climate.” Gould failed, however, to explain how divestment will change the conversation.

The irony is that well-intentioned activists and investors are actually doing the worst possible thing. Rather than selling energy companies, activist green investors should be buying them with the intention of changing company practices. To the extent the divestiture movement is “successful”, the result will be that investors who might vote for environmentally concerned Board members will likely be replaced by those who are unconcerned about the planet’s health.

Some may argue that the largest energy companies are so big that no one investor can change a company’s practices. But, the Rockefeller family controls billions of dollars as do trustees of large university and pension funds. With planning, by joining forces, and by buying rather than selling securities, these mega-investors could be well-positioned to impose better business practices on some energy companies.

Ultimately, the solution to our planet’s ecological crisis must be political. As long as the very high external costs of burning carbon (smog, global warming, increased military spending) are broadly distributed while the benefits are concentrated, extractors, refiners, and distributors will profit from fossil fuels. A carbon tax is the ideal solution. Nevertheless, if green investors were to take control of some companies demonstrate benefits from cleaner greener management, they would strengthen the case for a truly post-carbon future.

Unfortunately, neither the Marchers who, understandably perhaps, did not want to alienate anybody especially those whose financial and political support they seek nor the Flooders who are calling on environmentalists to withdraw from owning and hence influencing fossil fuel companies are on the most direct path to a cleaner greener future.

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