On the Politics of Civic Engagement

Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.

I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word.  Boone clearly takes no such stance.

She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.

None of these statements is political advocacy.

Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process.  We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy.  It also has political implications.

By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.

We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice.  Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?

If we choose to limit our communications and data collection to serve incumbent interests, then we must admit that Boulder has become a fundamentally conservative place. The choice to collect or avoid data or is often political. When congressional Republicans vote to de-fund NASA’s work documenting climate change, or block the use of statistical sampling in the census, they are advocating an Orwellian world in which Ignorance is Strength.

Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.

Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril.  Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.

A Moral Atmosphere

Bill McKibben rants eloquently about the need for more than individual actions to combat climate change — it’s a systemic problem, the solutions to which can only come with changes to the systems we are all embedded in.  Changing your light bulbs and riding a bike are the easy parts.  Organizing a devastating political campaign against the fossil fuel interests is much more challenging, and utterly necessary.

Shades of Green

There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion.  I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why.  Who are the people I’m trying to convince?  What camp do opponents imagine I’m in?  Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.

Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by.  Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources.  Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why.  In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change.  The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people.  The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all.  Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it.  The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.

Continue reading Shades of Green

The Danger in Republican Climate Denial

An Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle warning fellow conservatives off continued climate denial, lest the GOP be left out of climate change policy decisions altogether as public opinion swings behind the scientific consensus.  There’s still plenty of FUD and straw man partisan BS in its language, but the fact of climate change and the farce of painting it as some kind of hoax is called out loud and clear.

Doing the Math on Climate Divestment

I just got back from the 350.org Do The Math event in Boulder.  The touring show is an outgrowth of Bill McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone this summer, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  The argument is elegant and horrifying: if we want to keep global temperature from rising more than 2°C, we can emit at most 565 more gigatons of CO2, ever.  Currently, the global fossil fuel industry’s reserves total nearly 2800 gigatons.  That carbon accounts for a substantial fraction of their overall market value, and at least 80% of it must never be extracted.  Ergo, we must necessarily bankrupt pretty much all of them, and soon.  At our present burn rate, we’ll have used up the 565 Gt allowance in about 15 years, taking us well into that part of the map where, as they say, there be dragons.

I get all of the above, and am enthusiastically in support.  However, I’m confused by the logic of McKibben’s suggested first salvo against the industry.  He is promoting a divestment campaign, along the lines of the one aimed at apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.  In this campaign, institutional investors susceptible to moral or public relations arguments — like pension funds, church congregations and university endowments — are being encouraged to purge their portfolios of fossil fuel related securities.  There seems to be widespread confusion as to what this would mean in a purely financial sense to the targeted companies.  Certainly the audience was confused, but I couldn’t tell what McKibben and the other folks on stage really thought.

So, what would happen if a major swath of the world’s institutional investors dumped their fossil fuel stocks?  Presumably, this would depress the industry’s stock prices, by reducing demand.  But would this actually hurt the companies in any way?  The simple answer is no.  Most people I talked to seemed to think that by selling stock, they’d somehow be taking money away from these companies.  That’s just not how stock works.  The only time you’re buying stock from the company itself, and giving it funding, is at the initial public offering (IPO), or, occasionally, in subsequent public financing rounds, where new shares are issued, diluting existing shares.  Institutional investors owning shares of publicly traded companies are trading with other investors, not the company itself.  You can’t go to a company and say “I want my money back” after they’ve issued the stock.  Sometimes companies that are sitting on a mountain of cash will voluntarily buy back their own stock, but this results in the value of remaining outstanding shares appreciating — you’re sharing ownership of the same business over fewer shareholders.  Buybacks are often used as a tax efficient way to return earnings to investors, since dividends are taxed as income, but share price appreciation is taxed as capital gains, and those taxes can be deferred indefinitely.

The stock price of a company that’s in financial trouble goes down, reflecting that financial trouble.  Artificially depressing that company’s stock price doesn’t induce financial trouble.  What would it do?  It would lower the price to earnings (P/E) ratio, which would increase the dividend rate.  It would make the companies with stable underlying businesses more attractive stock purchases, and in a purely financial world, other less morally encumbered investors would buy up all the dumped shares, probably severely limiting any depression of the stock price.

The fact that climate divestment won’t starve the fossil fuels industry of capital doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.  So what are the other potential consequences of a successful divestment campaign?

Getting churches, universities, pension funds and other institutional investors to divest would decouple their financial interests from those of the fossil fuels industry.  This might make it easier for divested institutions to take strong political stances on climate change.  At the same time, as an individual, unless you have a lot of money invested, or live in a very efficient house and refuse to drive and fly, you’re more tightly bound to the financial interests of these companies via the prices of the fossil fuels you consume, than by the prices of the stocks of the companies that produce them.

If you’re feeling optimistic, getting institutions you care about (or depend on) to divest from the carbon industry might be seen as self-interested.  If we succeed in keeping 80% of the world’s booked fossil fuel reserves in the ground, then all these companies are the walking dead.  Like the hordes of zombie banks created in the financial collapse a few years ago, in a world that rises to meet the climate challenge, they are already bankrupt — they just don’t know it yet.  If you really believe we’re going to succeed, divesting is clearly the right thing to do financially in the medium to long run.

Probably most importantly, the campaign is aimed at branding fossil fuels as a morally repugnant investment, both explicitly and by analogy with the apartheid divestment movement.  In the case of South Africa, it was successfully argued that companies taking advantage of apartheid were benefiting from a form of legalized slavery, and anybody sharing in those profits was, in some part, morally equivalent to a slaveholder.  In the case of the Carbon Lobby we’re not slaveholders, we’re waging a war on the future.  This is particularly ironic in the case of university endowments, which support the education of young people, who will live further into that war-torn future than the rest of us, and pension funds that ostensibly work to ensure we are supported in our old age, as much as 50 years hence.

Morally repugnant industries are often allowed to operate, but their political influence becomes diminished and expensive.  Unless you’re actually representing a tobacco growing district, it’s tough to stand up publicly these days as a politician and rub shoulders with tobacco companies.  Their veneer of respectability has been peeled away.  This has made advertizing restrictions and smoking bans and hefty sin taxes politically possible.  If fossil fuel extraction were broadly accepted as a repugnant transaction, would it remain politically feasible to continue spending  five times as much on fossil fuel subsidies as we do on climate mitigation?

In the case of the technology driven oil and gas development and exploration, one might hope that a successful re-branding of the carbon industries as repugnant dinosaurs waging a war on the future would make it more difficult for these companies to recruit young technologically savvy talent, at any price.  Will petroleum and coal mining engineers one day feel unable to mention their work, for fear of public shaming?

This shift in our cultural norms about whether releasing geologically sequestered carbon is morally defensible is necessary, I think, but like virtually all climate campaigns it is not alone sufficient.  Especially in the energy-intensive developed economies, shaming and shunning the fossil fuel industry must also involve some amount of self-flagellation today.  It runs the risk of guilt-tripping people whenever they buy gas or fly, or leave the coal-fired lights on in the kitchen overnight.  That guilt can induce people to tune out, if they don’t feel like they have any alternative to their “bad” behavior.

We need to aggressively create those alternatives by creating paths to high-renewable penetration electricity, building cities for people that don’t depend on cars, inter-city high-speed rail that doesn’t suck, re-solarizing our agricultural systems, requiring the highest possible building energy efficiency, and mandating closed-loop zero-waste materials systems whenever they’re possible.  We also need to make sure we brand the fossil fuel industry as other.  We need a Them.  They take hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies every year.  They fund disinformation campaigns on climate.  They spend half a million dollars a day lobbying congress.  They are the problem, preventing necessary change, preventing us from adopting systems that don’t wage war on the future.  This otherness can forestall that feeling of short-term guilt.

This may sound like irresponsible heresy in the face of a tidal wave of consumer green marketing.  However, the vast majority of our emissions and resource utilization are systemically determined, and are not susceptible to significant change through personal choices alone.  Those necessary systemic changes are being blocked in large part by industry lobbying and disinformation.  In that arena of systemic change, which is what matters most, it really is Us vs. Them.

The Industrialization of Solar Power

The LA Times is reporting on the impacts of utility-scale solar power plants in SoCal’s desert counties.  What do you get when you start building multi-billion dollar solar installations?  Solar land-men, in three piece suits, leaning on your local politicians for favorable tax treatment?  Solar astro-turf campaigns, with corporate sponsored buses bringing solar supporters to public meetings?  Yeah.  Of course you do.  How else could it be, within our system?  If we do the responsible thing for the climate, and create a wholesale shift away from fossil fuel to renewables like wind and solar, we will have replaced one trillion dollar industry with another, and trillion dollar industries all behave badly.  At some level, what we’re fighting for is to create a trillion dollar climate advocate.  An incumbent corporate interest, invested in not breaking the sky.  And when we’re done, we’ll still have all the greater governance issues lying around, waiting to be dealt with.