Legislating Responsibility

In last week’s Phillipian, Ryan Brigden and Carter Page wrote an op-ed titled “Innovate, Then Invest” criticizing the practicality and effectiveness of Divest Andover. While they call the movement “ignorant” and “simplistic,” we believe this unfortunate vocabulary is due to a misunderstanding of our goals and principles.

At the most fundamental level, Brigden and Page misstate why we’re targeting the fossil fuel industry. They claim we take “a simplistic moral viewpoint by labeling complex systems as either all good or all bad.” We do not take issue with fossil fuel companies satisfying energy demand, but we want them to do so in a responsible manner.

Any company, or any person, for that matter, has a moral obligation to deal with the social injury it causes. If one drops a bottle on the ground, one should pick it up and recycle it. If a chemical company contaminates local streams, it should pay for the cleanup efforts. In the case of fossil fuel companies, climate change is directly tied to burning of fossil fuels, and the industry’s indifference toward this violates the moral obligation of corporate responsibility.

What specifically should fossil fuel companies do? There are varying answers to that question. We get ours from “The Ethical Investor,” the book upon which the Trustees of the Academy base Andover’s Ethical Investment Policy. Because climate change is an industry-wide problem, having only individual companies actively clean up their own mess would be ineffective: the companies which continue their irresponsible practices will simply gain a competitive edge. Thus, for effective correction of a problem like climate change, all companies must actively participate.

One possible policy to enforce participation and solve this dilemma is a carbon tax. This tax both accounts for the social cost of climate change and promotes innovation. Brigden and Page criticize current green technology for being “far too expensive and impractical” and say that only innovation can resolve this. Large scale innovation, however, only comes from a strong market incentive. Right now, all of society pays for the costs of climate change by facing more extreme weather, decreased crop production and more threats to public health. If we can redirect that cost onto the fossil fuel companies which cause it, green innovation will naturally blossom because it will be profitable. In fact, depending on how the tax is designed, already existing green energy sources may become cheaper than fossil fuels.

We want fossil fuel companies to be part of the solution because any transition to green energy will be gradual. The problem is that nearly the entire industry is focused on preserving its current business model, a model that ignores the threats of climate change. As we originally detailed, this industry spreads misinformation about climate science and distorts our political system. This goes straight against the principles of corporate responsibility outlined in “The Ethical Investor.”

So what’s the connection of all of this to divestment? The answer is twofold. From a moral standpoint, divestment clears us of supporting companies which cause grave social harm and contradict our founding principles. From a practical standpoint, divestment sends a strong symbolic message that the fossil fuel industry is primarily to blame for climate change and must be held responsible. When investors with significant cultural capital­, such as schools, churches or cities—decide to divest, they deal an irreversible blow to the public image and political power of fossil fuel companies.

Government policy ultimately follows cultural sentiment, and the social movement that the divestment campaign is sparking can spur the government to enact real policies as we have detailed above. Divestment alone will not solve climate change, but it is an important step in the process.

Let us also be clear on what divestment is not. It is not an attempt to force fossil fuel companies to change by threatening their bottom line, as Brigden and Page think. They are right that divestment will have little to no immediate financial effect, but that is beside the point, because the focus of divestment is cultural. In the long run, though, if divestment spurs the government to pass serious climate legislation, then it will certainly be harder for fossil fuel companies to maintain their mode of business.

Along this same line, it is wrong that Brigden and Page claim divestment will be felt “on the backs of low wage workers in the energy industry,” since it will have no immediate financial impact. Divestment’s effects will be gradual, and we believe workers will have the time and ability to shift to an alternative energy field.

In conclusion, we want to emphasize Jeremy Chen’s call for “an open and honest community dialogue.” in an article previously published in The Phillipian. We were happy to see Brigden and Page raise some important questions about Divest Andover, and we hope we’ve addressed them well. We also hope they’ll continue to keep us honest. With this mutual understanding, we can focus the conversation on the key question: whether or not Andover should divest. As a community, we can resolve this complex but important issue for Andover.

Edward Molé is a three-year Senior from Summit, NJ. Justin Wang is a three-year Senior from Columbia Heights, MN.