Is divestment the right answer for dealing with fossil fuels?

Students all over the country are pressuring their administrations to remove their investments from fossil fuels. But as time passes and the campaign gets little reaction, questions arise as to whether this approach is actually beneficial.

In October 2012, Bill McKibben, renowned climate change activist and founder of (and a personal hero of mine) kicked off the “Go Fossil Free” campaign, encouraging students to encourage their institutions to divest their massive endowment funds from fossil-fuel based companies. Roaming the country on his “Do The Math” tour, McKibben put it simply: fossil fuels are causing climate change, and unless we “rise up to stop them,” fossil fuel companies will keep doing what they do – making money by destroying our planet. He preached about future grassroots movements on college campuses, with people protesting in massive assemblies, evoking the feel of the first great divestment movement that ended apartheid. We would send a message to the oligarchical oil overlords: “We will not take this sitting down! We’ll take away your money, and then you’ll have to change!” Passions flared. Movements formed. A revolution had begun.

Earlier this month, Harvard President Drew Faust added his name to the rapidly growing list of university administrators across the country who are rejecting their students’ calls for divestment. On our own campus, the remaining members of the SU Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign (FFDC, now split from its twin campaign at neighboring ESF) struggle to find people to staff their weekly Monday petition-signing table – adding names to an ever-growing petition, started over a year earlier. “We have found that many people support our cause” said Rahimon Nasa, the current vice president of the FFDC. “It's just getting them to show up at the table. That's the problem.”

Syracuse’s campaign was fraught from the start, plagued by a near-anarchic leadership structure, and contending with an infamously apathetic campus. But on campuses around the world, many, many students are struggling convince their schools to divest. The way McKibben preached it, it should have been simple: Just like it was done during Apartheid in South Africa, students would rally to the cause, and administrators would cave in, divest, and send a message that would make change. Well, none of that is happening.

Let’s start with “rallying to the cause.” The protests that led to divestment from South Africa became protests for one key reason: People cared. It’s not that people don’t care about global warming. Climate change is happening, and fifty years from now, people will really be seeing the effects. But with something like Apartheid, you could see the effects every day, and they were pretty gruesome. As I mentioned in my last post, climate change just lacks visibility – and that keeps people from getting worked up about it.

So what if people don’t rally to the cause? Three people and a poster can make a difference, right? That’s basically what lobbying is. So assume that students are at least passively supporting the campaign. Why isn’t anything happening?

Well, in addition to visibility issues regarding climate change, the current divestment movement faces another major issue: Universities divesting from fossil fuels helps no one.

Think about it. With the South Africa campaign, the companies we were fighting to divest from were major players in the South African economy, and we were big investors for them. When they lost money, the message got through and change was made.

That’s not the same here. Fossil fuel companies don’t need university investments – they’re quite profitable on their own. Even if universities do divest, it’s not going to stop them from doing what they’re already doing.

On the same thread, cold turkey divesting from fossil fuel companies is dangerous for universities. Endowment funds provide much needed income for these institutions, and investing in these companies is significantly more profitable than many other investments. To completely drop these investments would do irreparable harm to universities, without doing anything to change the actions of fossil fuel companies. New investors would happily move in and start soaking up the profit, and all would continue as usual.

I still think the divestment campaign should continue; It just needs a refocusing. Instead of calling upon universities to divest from fossil fuel companies in order to send a message, we should be moving our investments from fossil fuel companies into other investments, ideally renewable energy. Supporting the rise of renewable energy is how we’ll send a message to fossil fuel companies: a small loss of investment won’t mean much, but serious, clean energy competition? That’ll change things for sure. We don’t need a divestment campaign. We need a reinvestment campaign.

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