10/16/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 12/16/2013 05:12 EST

Fossil Fuel Production Has a Moral Dimension Just Like Firearms and Tobacco Do

The following is an excerpt from The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal, and Gas. So How Do We Quit? released on Oct. 11 by Greystone Books.

Considering that their products are the root cause of climate change, the fossil fuel industry has so far done remarkably well at staying out of the limelight in the climate change debate -- despite the fact that many companies are actively blocking progress by prospecting for new fossil fuel reserves, building new infrastructure, buying off politicians or fomenting propaganda.

We showed earlier how the global politics of climate change is shaped significantly by the size of each country's fossil fuel reserves. This is partly because fuel-rich nations have more to lose economically from a global climate deal than those which rely on imported fuels. But it's also because the bigger the fossil fuel sector in a country, the more influence it tends to wield on public policy.

The significance of this is difficult to overstate. For example, it's hard to imagine how a global deal could come about until the U.S. agrees to take more of a leadership role. But it's difficult to see how that will happen while the American political scene is flooded with money from energy companies. Although there's much that President Obama could do unilaterally to tackle climate change (such as rule against the controversial XL Pipeline to bring crude from the Canadian tar sands to the refineries and markets of the U.S.), his hands are tied in terms of a global deal by the recalcitrance of senators and representatives in Congress, many of whom rely on campaign donations from fossil fuel companies. We saw earlier that those heavily invested in fossil fuels are spending almost half a billion dollars on campaign donations and lobbying every year.

Oil, coal and gas companies certainly can't take all the blame for our failure to solve climate change. But those which lobby against carbon regulation for their own benefit, buy politicians, spread misleading information, and invest their capital in expanding their reserves rather than developing carbon capture or alternative energy need to be named and shamed -- and their efforts resisted by the rest of society. That resistance can take many different forms, from old-fashioned protests, petitions and consumer boycotts to funders and companies refusing to support the politicians in their pockets.

Art galleries and cultural institutions could shun their sponsorship and institutional investors could demand that the fuel companies they part-own stop blocking progress -- or even divest from the fossil fuel sector altogether. Campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic are now calling on pension funds, universities, churches to do just this. Divesting may not have much direct financial impact because if someone is selling stocks or shares, then by definition someone else is buying them.

But the rapidly growing campaign around divestment is sending a powerful message and highlighting the idea that fossil fuel production now has an unavoidable moral dimension, much like other controversial sectors such as firearms and tobacco. The idea is gaining traction, too. In December 2012 the mayor of Seattle become one of the first prominent politicians to back the campaign, writing an open letter to the city's two main pension funds encouraging them to 'refrain from future investments in fossil fuel companies and begin the process of divesting our pension portfolio from those companies'.

Another possible way to challenge the legitimacy of ongoing fossil fuel extraction may be to use the courts. Until recently it's been impossible to say how climate change affects any specific weather event. But that is starting to change. The latest attribution studies can say with a reasonable degree of confidence how much more likely a flood or wildfire was made by man-made carbon emissions, and -- as climate scientist Myles Allen argues -- this raises at least a theoretical possibility of those who have suffered losses as a result of global warming suing the fossil fuel sector for its contribution to those losses.

Realistically, the chance of anyone winning damages remains very slight, not least because no individual company is responsible for more than the tiniest proportion of the carbon that humans have added to the air. But a recognition in the courts, anywhere in the world, that each fossil fuel company could be held liable for even a tiny slice of the consequences of climate change could be both practically and symbolically important.

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