- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network
Sometimes, environmental movement campaigns that become very popular aren’t the ones that are the most strategic. Trying to divert the fossil fuel divestment bandwagon to a better path hasn’t been easy (or well-received), but some critical examination is long overdue.
As activists like to point out, we don’t have much time to address climate change. We’re already past the point where we can “stop” it, and likely past the points where we can contain it to the two degree Celsius increase that supposedly averts catastrophic levels of climate disruption. Given this urgency, we cannot afford for so much time and energy to be spent on campaigns that aren’t fitted to the scale of the problem. It’s like scaring people about how awful global warming is, then telling them that they just need to screw in a different light bulb and drive a Prius.
In short, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is symbolic and diverts attention from going after the largest and most critical sectors driving climate change, and from actually disconnecting institutions from reliance on fossil fuels. It implicitly greenwashes other dirty energy sources (some of which are worse than coal) by framing the problem as just about fossil fuels. It similarly ignores the largest cause of global warming: animal agriculture. Unlike the anti-Apartheid campaign, it fails to target corporations in a position to actually change their behavior. Finally, investments are likely to be shifted to smaller fossil fuel corporations, corporations that support the fossil fuel economy, or other damaging investments. Efforts to drive investments to truly clean alternatives will be hampered by economic contradictions, requiring a deeper economic analysis as the campaign evolves.
Divestment is a symbolic campaign, but not a strategic one
Some of the main national organizers of this campaign – even Bill McKibben, in private – have admitted that the campaign is symbolic. Jamie Henn, a spokesperson with 350.org, said divestment alone will not succeed in reversing climate change, stating: “We have no illusion that we can bankrupt a company like ExxonMobil through divestment, but we can vilify them to the point where they begin to lose their political influence.” While campaign supporters have been building arguments for how symbolic campaigns can have tangible results, the reality remains that it’s still a stretch, and that more direct campaigns to fight fossil fuels would do far more for the climate and the communities directly impacted by the industry.
Christian Parenti makes several good points in his late 2012 article in The Nation, titled "Problems With the Math: Is 350's Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete?" He points out that the most infamous climate deniers, Koch Industries, is privately held and is immune to divestment, as is 70% of world oil reserves (and even more of the ‘easy oil’) which are owned by national oil companies that are also heavily insulated from the tactic (though some are now partially traded). He points out that corporations don’t make money on investments (stock is mainly a way to get money out of these corporations), and that their bottom line isn’t impacted by investments, but by those consuming their products.
What Would be More Strategic?
The biggest contributor to climate change (as much as 51%) is animal agriculture. However, as the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, big environmental groups are unwilling to talk about this and advice that people stop eating so much meat and dairy. The other elephant in the room is natural gas power plants. With methane being 86 to 105 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time-frame, and serious leakage of methane gas occurring throughout the natural gas infrastructure (which cannot be brought to levels lower than coal’s impacts), the current push from coal to gas is suicidal for the climate. There is a surge of about 300 gas-fired power plant proposals in the U.S. right now, and the major environmental groups are doing an excellent job of ignoring them, if not still championing the switch from coal to gas. If the time and energy (and funding) put into divestment were put toward stopping gas-fired power plants while there’s still time to challenge most of them, it would be a dramatic and real win. Divestment campaigns and power plant battles both aren’t easy to win, but the track record of stopping power plants is arguably far better than divestment’s track record so far. About 60% of the gas-fired power plant proposals in the last wave of development (10-15 years ago) were stopped. 400 were built. Many more weren’t. Each power plant stopped does far more than all divestment campaigns can claim to – avoiding about 30 years of fracking over each power plant’s lifetime.
Divestment is a student-centered campaign. Even if we don’t leave campuses, there are several ways corporations are tied to universities, including purchasing and service contracts, research grants, recruiting, and ties to board members (often called trustees or regents).
A campus divestment campaign could just as easily include campaigns like the one run by the Ohio Student Environmental Coalition (which Energy Justice Network started in 2006 to fight proposed coal plants in Ohio) where Ohio State University students successfully pressured their campus president to step down from the board of Massey Energy, a major coal mining corporation. Could that also be seen as symbolic? Perhaps, but corporate influence over those running universities has had effects on curriculum and other corporate-university relationships – more than stockholding has in terms of influence.
Far more relevant would be to get schools and other institutions to replace fossil fuel use with demand reduction and clean, non-burn alternatives. This would directly stop their financial support for climate change, while becoming demonstration sites for how we should all live. Ending reliance on industry-funded scientific research (and getting more public funding for it) would also go a long way to end the “science for hire” that has our universities cranking out “tobacco science” promoting dirty energy.
Bloomberg isn’t something I’d normally cite, but they hit the nail on the head with this recent opinion piece:
“If divestment activists were serious about making a difference, setting an example, and drawing the full weight of America’s moral opprobrium onto the makers and consumers of fossil fuels, they’d be pushing a University Agenda that looked more like this:
- Require administrators, faculty, sports teams and other student groups to travel exclusively by boat and rail, except for “last mile” journeys.
- Cease construction of new buildings on campus.
- Stop air conditioning buildings, except for laboratories and archives that require climate control. Keep the heat no higher than 60 degrees in winter.
- Put strict caps on power consumption by students, keeping it to enough electricity to power one computer and one study lamp. Remove power outlets from classrooms, except for one at the front for the teacher.
- Ban meat from campus eateries and require full-time students to be on a meal plan.
- Remove all parking spots from campus.
- Stop operating campus shuttles, except for disabled students.
- Divest the endowment from fossil-fuel companies, if it makes you feel better
Why has No. 8 jumped to No. 1? Because it’s easy. Because a group of students pushing endowment divestiture can shut down a public meeting and be rewarded with the opportunity to hold a teach-in; a group of students pushing a faculty flying ban and the end of campus parking would find the powers that be considerably more unfriendly. Not to mention their fellow students. Or, for that matter, their fellow activists, few of whom are actually ready to commit to never in their lives traveling out of America’s pitiful passenger rail network. This is what I meant in an earlier post where I said that doing the easy but pointless thing is a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the hard and necessary thing.”
Dirty Energy is NOT just Fossil Fuels
Especially since the campaign is a symbolic one, it’s important that we educate people properly and stop feeding the perception that fossil fuels are the only dirty energy source, or the only fuels cooking the climate. This focus on fossil fuels has major blind spots, both for the climate and environmental justice.
Trash incineration, biomass incineration, landfill gas burning and biofuels are all promoted as renewable and carbon neutral, even though they’re worse than their worst fossil fuel counterparts. Nuclear power is also a serious problem, with its own climate impacts, which sucks up the money needed to transition away from fossil fuels.
Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well. New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to have coal plants and all sorts of boilers start burning trash without regulation or community notification. Divestment, like other climate policies, ignores incinerator emissions, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.
Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked. “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants. Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.
Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane. Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated). True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.
Biofuels are worse than petroleum for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.
Nuclear power is the most expensive (and subsidized) form of power and one of the most destructive and racist. It is a false solution that sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels. It also uses a significant amount of fossil fuels to chew up large amounts of land and bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.
By making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible, divestment campaigns feed the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels. A campaign that is more symbolic than strategic should at least ensure that its campaigners “get it” about these false solutions, and not pretend that their impacts are zero. More troubling is the fact that nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.
Even natural gas is partially greenwashed by divestment, since it only measures the top corporate divestment targets in terms of CO2 emissions – without including the substantial leaks of gas throughout the system that cause fracked gas to be worse than coal for the climate. If leaked methane was properly accounted for, far more fracking companies would be campaign targets. Since the campaign only targets extraction-sector corporations, the energy utilities and power plant developers driving the market for the gas are left untouched, even though demand-side campaigning would be far more effective.
Fossil Fuel Divestment is NOT based on the Anti-Apartheid Divestment Campaign
Fossil fuel divestment is not like divestment from South African apartheid. The Free Burma movement of the 1990s was. In both cases, multinational corporations were pressured to divest from specific countries. In the mid-1990s, after the Free Burma movement pressured Pepsico to leave Burma, where the company had sponsored trade shows for the military junta, Texaco was the next major campaign target. Texaco was working to build a gas pipeline through the rainforest using slave labor. Soon after the University of Wisconsin system divested over $230,000 in Texaco stock, specifically over this issue, Texaco pulled out of the pipeline project, just before they were about to be the target of a new national student campaign. These victories in Burma and South Africa were possible because corporations were pressured to cut their losses by dropping one small part of their overall operation.
Targeting the Wrong Corporations
Unlike those earlier divestment campaigns, the Fossil Fuel Divestment strategy is asking Exxon to stop being Exxon. If the campaign wanted to directly change corporate behavior through divestment, it needs to go after the corporations that can afford to make these changes, such as targeting the banks that finance dirty energy, or the cement companies that provide cement casings for fracking wells, or the power plant developers and utilities driving the demand for coal and gas. Such a campaign needs to target the corporations that enable the Exxon’s of the world, not expect Exxon itself to respond to minor fluctuations in stock price.
Reinvesting in What?
Unless reinvested wisely, money will just shift to other bad corporations, like the banks that finance fossil fuels, or companies that supply them, or other types of dirty energy. Shifting investments away from the top 200 corporations targeted by the campaign could likely mean shifting to smaller fossil fuel corporations, as Haverford College points out:
“The campaign focuses on 200 companies identified as having the largest proven reserves of fossil fuel resources, but does not address investments in other companies with marginally smaller fossil fuel reserves, or in companies with closely related activities, such as drilling and exploration services. When the College investigated a claim that a portfolio can be ‘optimized’ to exclude the 200 named companies while closely tracking the performance of a broad index fund, we learned that this was accomplished by replacing the excluded fossil fuel companies with other, smaller fossil fuel companies and associated service companies. We question the symbolic power of a strategy that would merely replace certain fossil fuel companies with other players in the same or related industry.”
Shifting from the targeted 200 corporations to smaller or ancillary fossil fuel companies or their funders is the opposite of strategic. These other corporations are the ones who could more easily be moved by a divestment campaign.
As the divestment campaign evolves, the need for reinvesting in clean solutions has become more of a priority. However, there are inherent contradictions in trying to play within the confines of institutions that insist on getting high returns on their “investments.” Even the term “investment” is misleading, as putting money into stock markets is more akin to gambling than investing, and is more often about getting money out of corporations (by doing nothing to earn it), than about stock being used to build the company.
Marjorie Kelly, co-founder (and for 20 years, president) of Business Ethics magazine, points this out in her book, The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. After touting socially-responsible business for decades, she came to the conclusion that corporations are inherently incapable of being socially responsible, and wrote that book to outline how corporations should be radically redesigned. The intro of her book explains:
“Stockholders fund major public corporations -- True or false?
False. Or, actually, a tiny bit true — but for the most part, massively false. In fact, “investing” dollars don't go to AT&T but to other speculators. Equity investments reach a public corporation only when new common stock is sold — which for major corporations is a rare event. Among the Dow Jones industrials, only a handful has sold any new common stock in thirty years. Many have sold none in fifty years.”
The capitol flow for these large corporations is in the opposite direction, forcing the corporation to internalize profits, externalize costs and constantly grow as fast as possible. The very nature of investing supports an economic growth model that is killing the planet. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” As a friend put it to me, “first we knew that the earth was flat, then we knew the earth was round… now we know that the earth is constantly growing.”
Clearly, we need to move beyond this understanding of the world, as if we can expect corporations to constantly grow the economy, returning profits to shareholders as if resources are endless. If we don’t challenge this premise and these economic models, we’re just reinforcing this market-based capitalist framework that brought us these problems in the first place. We need a steady state economy, but such an economic model isn’t something that an institution can invest in, expecting a return.
Are we smashing capitalism yet?
After the huge People’s Climate March, I participated in “Flood Wall Street” – a sit-in a few blocks from Wall Street, which stopped traffic (but not Wall Street) for several hours. Many were eager to “smash capitalism” – which I support – but I find it amusing how it’s framed as a one-step act, perhaps to be done on the way home from work. The idea is usually offered up by those who can’t articulate what the first steps might be to smash capitalism. I think it’s safe to say that shifting investments from a set of 200 large corporations to other corporations (large or small) is not a step toward smashing the capitalist growth-based economic model that is cooking our planet.
Worker-owned cooperatives and publicly-owned energy systems are one good step away from corporate control. However, they generally aren’t the sorts of systems that return profits to absentee shareholders. Using investments as the primary tactic limits the campaign to alternatives that are still growth-based and expectant on making money by doing nothing. The best alternative I’ve heard, which is a wonderful idea, is to reinvest endowments in the creation of new cooperatives to reduce energy demand locally and return some of the savings to the investors. We need to hit a point where all home and building owners are approached with offers to fund their maximizing use of conservation, efficiency and non-burn heating and electricity alternatives. This approach couples the investment alternatives with a real way to reduce use of fossil (and bio-) fuels.
Evolving the Campaign & "Divesting" in the Broad Sense
The two main national U.S. student socially responsible investment (SRI) movements in the 1990s rapidly evolved and radicalized once they saw the need to have a deeper anti-corporate analysis. That analysis was informed, in large part, by the "Taking Care of Business" booklet that launched the modern anti-corporate personhood movement, and related materials. The 2003 documentary, The Corporation, which exposes how modern corporations meet the government’s definition of a psychopath, is also an eye-opener calling us to a deeper analysis and more meaningful tactics.
We need to “divest” in a much broader sense. Let’s stop the 300-some proposed gas-fired power plants while there’s still time. Let’s also stop the rest of the dirty energy infrastructure, whether it be the popular pipeline to protest, the not-so-known pipelines, the Bakken crude oil “bomb trains,” the coal and nuclear facilities, or the biomass and waste incinerators. Let’s attack the demand by making campuses and communities into models of how to get away from burning anything to meet our energy needs. Let’s look honestly at the need to end animal agriculture and be willing to talk to people about what they eat, and change institutional choices in the matter. Let’s challenge one another’s environmental organizations to admit that deeper changes are needed, to focus on some of the immediate threats they’re ignoring, and to stop promoting bad policies, like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, carbon tax or trading schemes, and “renewable” energy policies that include biomass or other combustion sources.
Plugging in: Students seeking out a more radical (getting to the root of a problem), justice-oriented way to plug in are encouraged to check out the Student Environmental Action Coalition and to explore our campus organizing resources, including our Energy Justice Shale Initiative (formerly Energy Justice Summer) and Frack U. programs, supporting grassroots resistance to fracking. Anyone seeking to work with front-line impacted communities, or wanting to explore how reinvestment can benefit some of the environmental justice communities we work with (like Chester, PA) should get in touch with us at Energy Justice Network and check out our map of communities impacted by dirty energy and waste facilities.
Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities.