Fossil Fuel Divestment and the Climate Change Threat

mountain justice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I would like to thank Professors Mark Wallace and Timothy Burke for their recent letters to The Daily Gazette about the prospect of the College divesting from fossil fuels.

I agree with Professor Wallace that it is important to maintain the commitment to social justice on which the College was built. I also agree with Professor Burke that divestment should not be considered the end game of the struggle to keep fossil fuel in the ground and thus avoid catastrophic climate change. Divestment should play a role in a multidimensional strategy.

Before addressing environmental movement strategy, I feel compelled to fill in a blank that stood out in Professor Burke’s analysis: a frank reading of climate science. We must work backwards from the increasingly detailed thresholds that climate scientists are presenting to us. In an article published in Nature last month, Dr. Christophe McGlade and Dr. Paul Ekins determined that one-third of oil reserves, one-half of gas reserves, and more than eighty percent of coal reserves must not be burned between 2010 and 2050 if we are to meet the global target of limiting warming to 2°C over the course of the twenty-first century. We face a threat that is nearly unique in its scope and danger (setting aside for the moment the threat of nuclear holocaust). If there were ever a time to bring all of our creativity and collective problem-solving skills together to tackle a problem on multiple fronts, it is now.

Meeting the conditions established by climate science requires serious intervention for which our political leaders have not yet mustered the necessary political will. A mass movement is necessary to reshape the political landscape in ways that will both allow and compel a radical course shift. We have multiple opportunities to contribute to such a movement, and divesting from fossil fuels is one reasonable option within our power. This view was affirmed repeatedly by visiting experts who participated in the sustainability charrette on campus this week.

As Professor Burke rightly points out, the chances of divestment directly affecting the bottom lines of the fossil fuel industry are slim. However, as he also points out, it may be possible to impact the industry and keep fossil fuel in the ground by developing sufficient political cover for officials to strike subsidies and levy carbon taxes.

A 2013 report out of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford asserts that the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is “likely” to produce changes in market norms as financial management firms respond with new socially responsible investment products. We already see this happening with Cambridge Associates, one of the firms that manages the College’s endowment. The authors of the report even foresee the possibility that global institutions, such as the World Bank, could stop lending to fossil fuel companies.

Finally, and most importantly, a general process of stigmatization can raise awareness among the public and political leaders. Again, divestment is one tactic among others to build a groundswell and legitimize the kinds of governmental responses that rise to the challenge we face. We might even avoid financial losses associated with holding overvalued and stranded fossil fuel assets.

Professor Burke’s call for humility is well-taken, and we should not overestimate our ability to shape public opinion. However, we also should not underestimate our influence either, especially the collective influence that can be generated through the networks that are so fundamental to social movements. Will institutions of higher education be as influential as, say, Hollywood? Maybe not, but our impact will not be negligible either. We are an institution in civil society with a significant measure of social and political capital. We should not be exempted from the collective work of insisting on just and sustainable energy policy on the grounds that we are not as influential as we might like.

Besides, institutions like ours have long served as staging areas for many influential movements that shaped public opinion. (Granted, that has often been because colleges and universities needed reform themselves.) Students have so often been at the forefront of important movements that we should not be surprised that the same is true today in the face of global climate destruction. Indeed, Swarthmore College is often identified as the point of origin for the national student fossil fuel divestment network. I hope the College will join the divestment campaign as soon as possible and claim a distinction for which students have positioned us.

Let me offer a word or two about campaigns. Professor Burke is concerned that “Divestment advocates within higher education have tended thus far to focus their energies narrowly on their own campuses…” This is, after all, where we live and work, so it is natural that we focus to some extent on our own campuses. At the same time, in fairness to student organizations such as Mountain Justice, we should acknowledge that these groups have committed significant time and effort traveling to Appalachia in support of local organizations. Faculty who support divestment have also undertaken community-based projects to investigate environmental degradation and learn from those directly affected by fossil-fuel extraction and global warming, often communities of poor people of color.

Focusing energy into campaigns with clear goals is also simply good movement strategy. Movements are always made up series of campaigns and actions. Campaigns may seem isolated in their local contexts, but collectively, they can generate substantial momentum. I expect the people of Selma, Alabama (if any readers have seen the new film about the voting rights campaign there) felt the same way about civil rights activists’ singular focus on voting in their town. How could organizing in that small town of approximately 28,000 people impact national policy? Well, it did not – not on its own. Civil rights were won at multiple sites and through numerous campaigns, all of which played incremental roles leading to the Voting Rights Act. Similarly, targeted divestment, sustainability, and environmental justice campaigns are all a part of the larger environmental movement. Progress is always incremental, often indirect, and nearly always appears unlikely at the time.

Today, it is important that we build a movement to stigmatize fossil fuels and keep them in the ground, even as we acknowledge that divestment is not the whole ball game. We can curb our consumption through sustainability initiatives, interrogate environmental injustice through our research and teaching, and join with other institutions, such as the New School, Pitzer College, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in divesting from fossil fuels and responsibly reinvesting in alternative forms of energy. The situation demands a both-and approach.

Lee Smithey is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program

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