Do fossil fuel industries understand how unpopular they are?

coal ash spill photo
CC BY 2.0 Appalachian Voices

Any heroin addict will tell you, dependence is not the same thing as love.

Yesterday I argued that NPR was dead wrong in downplaying Stanford's coal divestment. Not only did they ignore the potential for much larger divestment as fears of a carbon bubble grow, but they also failed to understand that one of the key aims of the divestment movement is not just to cut off the money, but to strategically stigmatize companies who are causing excessive harm.

But what does a fossil fuel company care about popularity?

For years, whenever I advocated for clean energy, or pointed to the massive ecological disasters we tax payers end up picking up the tab for, naysayers would point to the benefits that fossil fuels have brought us: electric light, personal mobility, errm, drag racing. Good luck convincing people to return to the stone age, they'd crow, and to some degree, they have a point.

Or at least they did.

We've had few options but to keep buying oil and coal-fired electricity, but that's changing. We're seeing a confluence of interests that will—or at least should have—Big Oil and Big Coal worried. Renewable energy prices are coming down. Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly commonplace. Even cities like Los Angeles are launching bike-friendly business districts as our notions of what a world-class city should look like evolve. And businesses of all shapes and sizes are demonstrating that investing in clean energy is increasingly a prerequisite for being considered a leader.

Of course, the situation is a little different if you are making big money off the shale gas boom, or if the only job in town is at Freedom Industries. Yet even in regions that are economically dependent on fossil fuel production, failures to care for workers' health, cancer clusters in the surrounding communities, and exposure to some of the worst industrial accidents of recent years mean that community support is by no means guaranteed.

As alternatives become more viable, and as the consequences of maintaining the status quo become increasingly hard to ignore, getting clean of our addiction will become a no-brainer for most communities.

It would be a big mistake for fossil fuel executives to mistake heavy usage or economic dependence for loyalty or love.

Tags: Activism | Clean Energy | Coal | Economics | Oil

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