The Fossil Free Divestment movement at Stanford has gained traction in national media this week. Student protesters pledge to occupy the main administration building until Stanford divests not only from coal, but also all fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas as well. However, the real power of divestment lies not in its ability to curb emissions, but rather in encouraging broad engagement to create a more inclusive climate change dialogue. By focusing exclusively on divestment, the Fossil Free movement forgoes an opportunity to create broader coalitions in environmental justice and a deeper investigation and pursuit of alternative methods to address climate change.
Divestment from fossil fuels is not, by itself, a pragmatic solution to significantly reduce emissions. Belief in the efficacy of divestment stems from the anti-Apartheid in campaign wherein banks and corporations divested from companies working in South Africa. While these divestment efforts raised moral standards and created international pressure for South Africa to change its policies, a 1999 study found that the divestments themselves had almost no bearing on public valuations of companies operating in South Africa. Likewise, in the energy sector, one would expect that “socially responsible” institutions like Stanford that divest from fossil fuels would just be replaced by socially indifferent investors who would stand to gain from the stable, positive economic returns in the fossil fuel industries.
Moreover, divestment in itself is not practical as a strategy to disincentivize fossil fuel use because the use of coal, oil and gas is inextricably linked to almost all industries. On the Fossil Free website, the campaign’s stated goal is to “freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies” and divest from funds that “include fossil fuel public equities.” However, the movement never defines what a “fossil fuel company” is or what consists of “fossil fuel public equities.” For example, medicines, cosmetics, plastics, fabrics, utilities, manufacturing and almost all consumer goods industries depend overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to develop their products and produce GHG emissions in the process.
If the principle behind the Fossil Free movement is that fossil fuel use must end, does this mean that we must also divest from all linked industries as well? The argument for fossil fuel divestment becomes a slippery slope where, if we are to be consistent, divestment would require not only forfeiting investments in fossil fuel producers, but also in large swaths of the economy, which would not be feasible for any decent investment portfolio.
The power of divestment does not lie in its ability to reduce emissions and curb fossil fuel production; rather, it lies in its ability to encourage public discourse and action in an array of ways. The Fossil Free movement at Stanford has received local, national and international media attention because the protests around divestment send the message that youth care about climate change and demand action. However, focusing exclusively on divestment is convenient and prevents further conversation and action. Stephen Bocking, professor of environmental sciences at Trent University, claims that divestment “feels good…[and] requires no change in personal behavior” and that it is a “clear and convenient response to an inconvenient truth.”
By focusing purely on divestment, we narrow the conversation on climate activism to only one potential approach and abdicate the responsibility to further inspect how we personally are complicit in climate change.
There are multiple ways that the Fossil Free movement at Stanford can work to broaden the conversation on climate change. One way to do so is not to just demonize fossil fuels, but also understand ways in which we can utilize “clean” fossil fuels to transition to a more sustainable economy. Global energy demand in the future is expected to rise and developing countries especially rely heavily on fuel for economic growth. As a result, understanding how we can encourage or mandate cleaner fossil fuel standards, such as enhanced carbon capture and advanced burning techniques, will help in a transition to a more sustainable economy.
Fossil Free can also raise public motivation for change by encouraging more diverse conversations and recognizing the intersectionality of environmental degradation, ethnicity and class. For example, multiple studies have demonstrated that large developed nations have been the main contributors of climate change while developing nations (especially island nations) will be most at-risk for destabilization due to climate change. On a local level, poor communities of color, underrepresented in environmental movements, suffer from disproportionate environmental pollution and degradation, which often originate from services provided to affluent neighborhoods (i.e., the Romic toxic waste plant in East Palo Alto). The Fossil Free movement provides an opportunity to engage and build coalitions with these communities to create a more informed, diverse conversation around environmental activism.
The Fossil Free movement at Stanford has the potential to motivate significant and powerful changes to build a more sustainable economy. However, using its media attention and discourse to only discuss divestment would be wasting an opportunity that could be used to encourage a more critical and inclusive dialogue about alternative avenues to address climate change, the complicity that we as consumers and polluters have, and the disproportionate burden of environmental consequences among communities and nations. Divestment by itself will not be enough to address the complexity of climate change. However, it can be used as a platform to encourage broader engagement and activity.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.