February 25, 2014

Not just symbolic

Anti-divestment defeatism misses the point.

On Friday, Maroon readers were treated to a Viewpoints column titled “Divest from Divestment” by Patrick Reilly concerning the recent push by student activists on campus for the University to discontinue direct investment in fossil fuel companies. Taking an opposing view on the issue from most previous op-eds, Reilly urges us to “look at the facts” when it comes to the impact divestment would have on the actions of fossil fuel companies, arguing that “a symbolic public relations campaign” would do little to “sway Big Oil.” Because of the relatively small size of University investments relative to the market capitalization of companies such as Exxon Mobil, he contends, “SFCC’s energies could be better spent elsewhere.”

Well, yes, divestment by UChicago alone would have little immediate impact on the University’s energy consumption habits or the pocketbooks of Exxon; that much is obvious. Assessments like these questioning the University’s economic clout in the global energy market misunderstand the approach divestment takes. That approach—the indirect “social stigmatization” effect that Reilly so casually dismisses—seems suspect, until you consider the fact that the vast majority of empirical studies on divestment have found that it wields considerable influence on the outcome of political and social campaigns.

Reilly is right: “Fundamental change in energy policy at all levels” is the only way transitioning to renewables will be facilitated. But he fails to consider that these changes will only occur by force of a massive, overwhelming popular movement that recognizes not only the non-negotiable imperative for climate action but also the extent to which companies like Exxon are fighting efforts to do anything.

And fought they have. Oil and gas companies are routinely top contributors to organizations and political candidates that deny climate change, although this money has become harder to track in recent years. The most ambitious legislative attempt at comprehensive climate policy in the United States, the Waxman-Markey bill, failed in 2009 thanks in large part to opposition from the industry. Last year, the largest 200 fossil fuel companies in America recklessly spent $674 billion on exploring and developing new carbon reserves, despite the fact that the vast majority of unburned fossil fuel assets will have to remain in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Actions like these, combined with lackluster investment in renewable energy (and not-so-lackluster advertising) suggest that the fossil fuel industry is forgoing its chance to “get on board” with going green. Given the success of its current business models—six of the 10 most profitable corporations worldwide deal in oil and gas—it’s easy to see why.

The most successful movements in the 20th century—American civil rights, anti-apartheid, Indian independence—did not succeed by asking nicely. While fossil fuel divestment is certainly not as morally cut-and-dry as, say, apartheid divestment, the underlying principle remains: The only way the propagators of a destructive system will change is if people demand they do so via the removal of their support, symbolic or otherwise.

There’s no questioning that industrial progress powered by coal, oil, and gas has yielded impressive gains in wealth and standard of living over the past two centuries, or that these energy sources comprise “a trillion-dollar, public-private industrial system that connects and supports every individual on the planet.” But this latter fact is precisely the problem: Fossil fuels are so deeply rooted in our economy that it’s impossible for businesses, families, and universities not to be complicit under current conditions.

Divestment isn’t perfect; it will be impossible for the University to remove full support of the fossil fuel industry until the goals of the green energy movement have been achieved. Nor is divestment intended to be an exclusive action—advocacy for sound, specific policies is equally important and the focus of UChicago Climate Action Network’s other campaigns—but it is a necessary one.

Another flaw in Reilly’s argument is his assumption that divestment is meant to be a practice particular to universities. While only nine institutions of higher learning in the United States have divested from fossil fuels as of today, thousands of municipal governments, religious groups, nonprofit organizations, and pension funds have done their part. The Global Investor Survey on Climate Change found that 23 percent of investors overall took divestiture action in 2013, up from nine percent the previous year.

Not all of these divestments were driven by moral concerns. Many investors heeding warnings from Jeremy Grantham, Hank Paulson, and others about a growing carbon bubble and the need for climate- change risk assessment are simply trying to minimize market exposure to stranded carbon assets and climate deterioration.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres have both come out explicitly in favor of divestment on financial terms. These developments have had some effect on big oil’s bottom line: In January, Exxon, Shell, and Chevron saw their collective market capitalization fall $24 billon.

Whether propelled by moral or monetary incentives, the University doesn’t exist in a vacuum; nor is its support of fossil fuel companies (or anything else, for that matter) apolitical. When preserving the status quo threatens the long-term viability of our species, is that not an “exceptional instance…incompatible with paramount social values”? This quote, taken from a clause in the Kalven Report, was written for times like these. Let’s not disappoint.

Johnny Guy is a first-year in the College.