An environmental campaign must do (at least) two things to be successful. It must have a definite, worthwhile goal. And it must have a viable means of carrying out that goal with a reasonable chance of success. The ongoing campaign to divest from energy companies drilling for fossil fuels certainly meets the first goal. For the second, alas, it probably falls short and is likely not the best means of compelling reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This made for a tough decision when 350.org recently approached the Montgomery County Sierra Club— I am a member of their board—to sign on to a statement asking the county to divest.
The need for drastic action is clear. As Bill McKibben elucidates, the amount of fossil fuels currently found, but still locked underground, is enough to increase planetary temperature a devastating 60 C. This is three times the 20 C target that the world has agreed is needed (although even that puts humanity at risk). The big energy companies—and the countries that support them—plan to exploit as much of this energy as possible, making for a grim human future. Yet fossil-fuel companies have lobbied hard against GHG emission taxes, universally agreed as the best solution to climate change. We are faced with an existential crisis necessitating strong action.
A couple of recent actions have been effective—although not effective enough. The Beyond Coal campaign has helped to shut down the United States’ dirtiest coal plants, while the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline has delayed shipment of dirty tar sands oil from Canada. Yet these won’t be sufficient. It is easy to see why divestment is being tried as another strategy to stop fossil fuels. By asking cities, states, universities, and other institutions to sell all their stocks in fossil-fuel companies, the divestment campaign hopes to create pressure that leads to major changes.
But what impact is this campaign likely to have? Christian Parenti, among others, argues that its effect on fossil-fuel companies will be negligible, since they depend much more on sales than on stocks. Indeed, should the divestment campaign succeed in lowering stock prices, other players, particularly large investment firms, are likely to step in, sensing a bargain. The divestment campaign website virtually admits this, arguing that “Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy, but a moral and political one.” In this it mirrors the 1980s divestment campaign against Apartheid, after which it is named.
That campaign eventually led to the South African government ending white rule and declaring free elections. Much of this was due, not so much to economic pressure, but to the embarrassment that being cast as a pariah nation had on South Africa. Memories of this campaign explain why the “divestment” brand seems to have such moral force, intimating that today’s campaign can replicate the success of the anti-Apartheid movement. Yet huge energy companies aren’t countries. Corporations are amoral creations whose stated purpose is solely to make money. Still, the Corporate Social Responsibility movement is beginning to change that. And, if corporations aren’t people, surely the executives who run them are. Perhaps the leaders of at least some large energy companies can be appealed to? After all, they have children and grandchildren and are likely concerned about the future of the planet. Since these corporations have in-depth knowledge regarding energy issues, they would be tremendous allies. There might even be some profit in it for them.
Unfortunately, the current divestment campaign makes seducing any energy companies away from their destructive ways virtually impossible. It makes three demands of energy companies before they can be removed from the pariah list:
- They need immediately to stop exploring for new hydrocarbons.
- They need to stop lobbying in Washington and state capitols across the country to preserve their special breaks.
- Most importantly, they need to pledge to keep 80% of their current reserves underground forever.
This would amount to suicide for these companies, not a rational business move—not even a socially responsible one. I understand where these demands come from; they are the ideal actions to ensure a safe planet. Yet principle cannot substitute for a viable plan to achieve a goal. While the planet might be best served by keeping 80% of reserves underground, no energy company will agree to this.
Demanding a negative is less likely to work than requesting positive action. Perhaps it’s better to ask companies to greatly expand renewable energy, which would open the way for fossil-fuel reduction. This was done in 2011 by Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Vice President for North American Oceans, albeit in a limited way on a limited forum. Following the cataclysmic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, she asked that BP put 30% of its investments into clean energy to clear its name. Of course, BP has not done so. However, continuing social and political pressure on all energy companies might induce such a move for at least one or two. This would bring capital and knowledge into the already-growing clean energy field, allowing it to better compete with fossil fuels. Once it’s proven that clean energy is viable on a large scale, it becomes much easier to meet fossil-fuel reduction targets that today seem simply impossible. We should do this step by step (albeit, given limited time, in rather large steps) instead of demanding one huge, off-putting sacrifice.
Advocates of the current divestment campaign will argue that I’ve missed the point—that the campaign isn’t aiming to change the behavior of energy companies. Rather, divestment is meant to get the public, and the government, to see energy companies as so odious that they are forced to change their behavior. Again, I wonder how well the divestment campaign has defined the means of achieving its objective. Since the public can’t very well boycott energy companies, the means of causing change must be the government. Direct lobbying might be somewhat effective, but what’s really needed here is wider public pressure on legislators. Is divestment the best means of doing this? It will stir something in liberals who remember the 1980s South Africa campaign and already sympathize with government intervention to protect the environment. However, an effective campaign needs to target independent voters who swing key elections. It should also target the many conservatives who support environmental objectives, such as hunters, but who are dubious about federal intervention. A creative, sustained, at times even sensational, informational campaign to counteract the many distortions coming from the energy lobby, and illuminate the threat we all face, would be more effective than divestment. Revelation is powerful. Specifically, many Americans do not know (or choose not to know) that 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is happening and is human caused. They do not know that the energy companies have engaged in a campaign, using tactics derived from the tobacco companies, to cast doubt on climate change. They’re unsure just how imminent and threatening climate change actually is. Apocalyptic messaging is called for because the threat is so real. Of course, environmentalists have made these points, but they need to do so in new venues, using tactics ranging from the counterculture of the 1960s to Madison Avenue to social media. If they wish to paint the energy companies as amoral liars with no concern for humanity’s future—a rather accurate portrait—they need to do so directly and repeatedly. This would be a better use of time and effort than a circuitous divestment campaign.
I came into the debate a strong advocate for divestment, and, after contentious arguments from both sides, ended up abstaining on the final vote. It’s not a Sierra Club campaign, but that of like-minded, idealistic allies, so perhaps there is no reason not to sign on. I fear, though, that divestment advocates are expending tremendous effort on a campaign likely to be ineffective. They are making unrealistic demands of energy companies instead of dramatically bringing their deprivations before the broader public, the only force that can, ultimately, put a heavy price on climate change.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.