What is the value of symbolic action?

Robert Stavins argues that largely symbolic actions do not help and may ultimately hurt the cause for action on climate change (HT Mark Thoma):
Over the past year or more, across the United States, there has been a groundswell of student activism pressing colleges and universities to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.  On October 3, 2013, after many months of assessment, discussion, and debate, the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, issued a long, well-reasoned, and – in my view – ultimately sensiblestatement on “fossil fuel divestment,” in which she explained why she and the Corporation (Harvard’s governing board) do not believe that “university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.”  I urge you to read her statement, and decide for yourself how compelling you find it, and whether and how it may apply to your institution, as well. 
About 10 days later, two leaders of the student movement at Harvard responded to President Faust in The Nation.  Andrew Revkin, writing at the New York Times Dot Earth blog, highlighted the fact that the students responded in part by saying, “We do not expect divestment to have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies …  Divestment is a moral and political strategy to expose the reckless business model of the fossil fuel industry that puts our world at risk. 
I agree with these students that fossil-fuel divestment by the University would not have financial impacts on the industry, and I also agree with their implication that it would be (potentially) of symbolic value only.  However, it is precisely because of this that I believe President Faust made the right decision.  Let me explain.
Some may feel exasperated.  If students cannot even make a symbolic or moral point, what can they do?  If your initial reaction is skepticism, I encourage you to click through and read the whole thing, including an earlier post where he addresses what individuals and small institutions can do to curb global warming.  His bottom line: 
Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.
Stavins also describes some reasons why symbolic activities might be counterproductive.  

I've got one small quibble.  Stavins is right that the over-arching actions required to curb global warming require national and international government. This may seem too remote for many individuals and institutions who want to actively engage.

But with CO2 concentrations already reaching over 400ppm, there is also a fairly large amount of warming already baked into our future.  Different locations will be affected in different ways, and state and local communities and governments need contingency plans and strategies for adaptation.  Building codes and land use regulations need to be revised.  There is also plenty of waste and inefficiency in current state and local policies.

So, if you want to act locally instead of nationally or globally, try to find practical ways for local governments and institutions to improve their regulatory systems.  Here in Hawai'i, we could probably manage our local public resources: energy, water and coastal ecosystems much better, regardless of climate change.  And given warming and sea level rise already anticipated, we need to develop sensible policies for adaptation.

The first step is to thoroughly educate yourself on the local challenges and policy tradeoffs.  Doing that is probably more work than you think.  As Stavins intimates, it seems people often focus on simple (but ultimately useless) symbolic actions because they're easy to do.  Perhaps we make ourselves feel better by talking gravely about the problems and in making great moral pronouncements about what other people should be doing.  Nevermind that all of this accomplishes precisely nothing.


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