Divest to save the planet

March 13, 2013

The climate justice movement can learn from other divestment campaigns--and make common cause with other struggles and movements, argues Alex Buckingham.

CLIMATE-JUSTICE campaigns focused on divestment from fossil fuel companies are hitting colleges and communities across the U.S. There are more than 250 campaigns underway, with Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Sterling College in Vermont and Unity College in Maine already agreeing to divest.

The rapid spread of these campaigns shows the growing urgency that many feel about climate change--along with frustration at government inaction and broken promises. Activists are working together through informal networks and the website of the Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels conference that took place at Swarthmore College in late February.

The divestment campaigns developed in response to last fall's Do The Math Tour by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. McKibben spoke at colleges and universities across the country to explain the facts about climate change. Essentially, the Do The Math argument is: At most, 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere before global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold for maintaining a hospitable planet. But fossil fuel companies have about 2,795 gigatons of carbon in reserve. The earth is already 0.8 degrees warmer, and the fossil fuel industry plans to suck every last ton of hydrocarbons out of the ground.

Students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rally on a national day of action for fossil fuel divestment
Students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rally on a national day of action for fossil fuel divestment (350.org)

The struggle for divestment is part of a shift among activists away from calls for lifestyle changes and marks a new focus on the systemic nature of climate change. The fossil fuel industry is targeted because of the way it lobbies the government to do absolutely nothing about climate change. We see these results when President Obama boasts of cutting the red tape holding back deep sea drilling or tapping into other reserves. BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 has been forgotten as more reserves are explored and accessed in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico.

The divestment struggle is part of a broader climate movement that has been growing in response to the superstorms like Hurricane Irene and Sandy, droughts, wildfires, oil spills and the devastation of mountaintop removal. Students involved with divestment campaigns carpooled and bused their way to Washington, D.C., in February to march with 40,000 protesters calling for Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Many of the leading student activists have been involved on their campuses to push for bans on bottled water being sold on campus or creating ecofriendly buildings and spaces. They have been the ones organizing and mobilizing for the Power Shift conventions in Washington, D.C.

WHILE A small number of campuses froze investments or divested rather quickly, many have stonewalled climate-justice activists or attempted to ensnare them in bureaucratic processes to wait out the struggle. At Harvard, for example, President Drew Faust refused to cut ties to fossil fuel companies even after nearly three-fourths of the university's students voted for divestment.

The insulting alternative has been to set aside a small portion of Harvard's massive endowment for socially responsible investment--as if putting a little bit of money into renewable energy makes up for profiting from destroying the planet or from the military-industrial complex.

At the University of Vermont, divestment action has been channeled into collaboration with the Socially Responsible Investment Working Group, a formation set up by the school to sidetrack activists involved in prior struggles. The nature of the working group has changed over the decades in response to other campaigns, such as the struggle to divest from cluster bombs or Israeli apartheid.

As a result, organizers end up spending tens of hours each week refining divestment proposals or meeting with administrators--instead of building the kind of student, faculty and staff base needed to encourage a board of trustees focused on the business of the university to actually carry out divestment.

These tactics by university administrators are all the more successful because of the political defensiveness of parts of the movement. For example, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tend to approach issues by looking for an official body to negotiate with, rather than looking to organize a grassroots mobilization that can put muscle behind our demands.

On the national level, the NGO approach tends to mean supporting the Democratic Party. It also leads to activists trying to play down "radical ideas" so the movement can "maintain its legitimacy."

But the consequence on the ground is a lack of focus on involving more and more people in the movement's direction. We need to tap into the frustration and anger about climate change--and people's feeling that they need to do something about it--by building a campaign that has space for a broad layer of students to participate actively, not passively. That means a visible campaign, not closed-door meetings with university presidents.

The divestment strategy is about pointing the finger at the fossil fuel industry and building a social movement beyond university endowments. For instance, the city of Seattle will no longer be invested in fossil fuel companies, and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has called for those in charge of the city's pension fund to do the same.

THE MODEL for divestment efforts today was the global campaign to cut economic ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa. That struggle peaked in the 1980s and played a part in the fall of white minority rule in 1994.

There are clear lessons to take from this history. While divestment campaigns and broader struggles did force the U.S. government to pass legislation imposing sanctions on South Africa, economic isolation from without was combined with massive protests and strikes by Black South African workers. Furthermore, the struggle was built in solidarity with struggles against oppression in the U.S.

The struggle for divestment from fossil fuels must likewise be connected with other struggles for social justice. One example is divestment activists' use of the orange square symbol--something used by student struggles around the world, like the Quebec students' resistance to tuition hikes.

Supporting the indigenous Idle No More movement in Canada is similarly a must. Putting forward calls for unionized green jobs is essential for connecting the environmental with the demands of working people. Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline are also promoted by the establishment as "job creators." So we need to demand divestment from fossil fuel alongside calls for massive public investment in green energy, good-paying jobs and retraining for workers.

Instead of subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we should push for a subsidized high-speed rail projects. To pay for it, we should call for heavy taxation of the fossil fuel industry and the rich. Furthermore, we should redirect the funds going to the Pentagon, which the American establishment uses to control the supply of fossil fuels abroad, into public green projects.

The Climate Protection Act sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer points in the right direction, calling for taxation of carbon emissions in order to fund both renewable-energy and energy-efficiency technologies. It also passes a majority of the revenues from the carbon fees to consumers to offset increased prices.

If there is already a divestment campaign at your college or in your community, now is the time to get involved. If not, contact local 350.org or other environmental groups and organize a meeting to bring together different organizations and people to talk about what a divestment campaign might look like in your community. It could begin with a meeting on climate change, the climate movement and fossil fuel divestment. Also check out gofossilfree.org and studentsdivest.org to see if there are people near you already organizing around divestment.

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