Toby Talbot, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Environmental activist Bill McKibben speaks to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.
It's ironic that Bill McKibben once wrote a book called "The Age of Missing Information" because that's exactly what's missing from the longtime environmental activist's latest campaign.
McKibben embarked this month on a nationwide tour to denounce the fossil fuel industry and get public institutions to divest from oil and gas companies. He says that this will reduce carbon emissions, thereby slowing global warming and averting environmental catastrophe.
The main piece of information missing from his lecture tour is just what he thinks is going to get those carbon emissions to go down. It's not that he doesn't have a plan to reduce them — he does, and it can be gleaned from his 12 books and many articles. But his emissions-reduction plan doesn't feature in his road show, which focuses on the simple message that oil companies are evil.
Why the omission? Probably because McKibben's true agenda wouldn't be palatable to a wide audience. It's easy to get people to rail against big business. But his goals include driving up the cost of energy and returning Americans to self-sufficient agrarian communities with minimal electric power. He wants modern society to enter "a controlled decline," as he wrote in his 2010 book, "Earth," reversing the economic gains of the 20th and 21st centuries.
McKibben's desire is for everyone to "keep voting for politicians who will raise the price of gasoline high enough to cause most of us to park our cars and take the bus." But he knows that few Americans are ready to vote for candidates who say energy should be scarce and expensive.
So with little support for his actual position, he's attempting a back-door approach. He hopes that blaming oil companies for our ills will lead public pension funds to sell their stock, which will lead to a future where we can't assume "that every second of every day energy is always going to be there in exactly the quantities we want."
McKibben has said that he wants to foster "moral outrage" on this tour, but when he's onstage, he isn't straightforward about who we're supposed to be outraged against.
After all, oil and gas companies produce oil and gas but not carbon emissions themselves. Those are produced by the businesses in every sector — including farming — that rely on electricity, and the millions of Americans who use fossil fuels every day to heat our homes, power our cars and keep the lights on. McKibben may rail against big oil, but the supply wouldn't exist without the market. His true villains are those of us who dare to demand power at a price we can afford.
Making an audience-friendly attack on faceless corporations instead of the consumers who keep them in business is just one of his campaign's many obfuscations. Though the tour is called "Do the Math," he admits his numbers are inexact; he seems to ignore the fact that 70 percent of fossil fuel reserves are owned by foreign governments, not the publicly-traded companies that public pension funds actually own stock in.
The biggest piece of misinformation, though, is the notion that bashing oil companies might somehow solve climate change. Planetary warming does indeed pose economic and environmental risks. But our best hope for addressing them is not to simply pull the plug on oil and gas. Rather, it's to invest in technology that will allow us to conserve resources without forcing us to live like 19th-century farmers.
It will be scientists and entrepreneurs who drive the transition to new sources of energy. But we need affordable energy in the meantime — nations that don't know whether they will have electricity from one day to the next don't tend to invent much.
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It so happens that oil and natural gas companies are today among our biggest investors in green technologies, ranging from geothermal energy to biofuels.
McKibben apparently has no qualms about shutting down those efforts. That shouldn't be surprising from someone whose true goal is to take us back to the past.
Jerry Rogers is president of Capitol Allies and founder of the Six Degrees Project, an independent, nonpartisan effort that promotes entrepreneurship, economic growth and free-market ideals.