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The Desperate Search for a Strategy to Defeat Climate Change

The most significant and irreversible threat that our generation poses to the future is marked by an almost complete political incapacity to act.

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McKibben and his organization 350.org have launched a nationwide campaign aimed at the fossil fuel industry and are rallying people behind a strategy – a demand that universities, public pension funds, and other institutions 'divest' their stock holdings in that industry.

Targeting the fossil fuel industry is essential. Like the tobacco industry before it, these corporations have assembled the same powerful arsenal in their defense –fake science ('clean coal' is the new 'filtered cigarettes'), piles of political money, and warnings about job losses in tough times (coal miners and pipeline workers are the new tobacco farmers). It also helps to have vast numbers of people addicted to your product. As with tobacco, the fossil fuel industry knows that the damage it causes will eventually become undeniable and restrictions will follow, but the longer the industry can use politics and public relations to buy delay the more profit it can take from its sunk investments.

The power of these divestment efforts is their potential to rally public attention to the industry and its role in the climate crisis. But divestment as the target for action raises the same question as global summitry does: Is it a strategy with a chance of delivering the goods or is it a dead end?

The divestment call to action declares, "If we start with these local institutions and hit the industry where it hurts — their bottom line — we can get their attention and force them to change. This was a key part of how the world ended the apartheid system in South Africa, and we hope it can have the same effect on the climate crisis."

Exxon, Shell, Chevron and the others, however, are very different institutions than South Africa's apartheid government was in the 1970s and 1980s and subject to very different economic and moral pressures. The divestment campaigns aimed at South Africa translated into domestic political pressures on the ruling National Party and helped force it to the negotiating table with the ANC.  In the case of the oil giants, even if divestment efforts do succeed in provoking modest sell-offs of stock, corporations sitting atop scarce and valuable resources and record profits are likely to have little problem finding eager new buyers.  In terms of moral pressure, it seems equally improbable that corporate boards will grow so tired of being despised that they voter to walk away from those profits and shift their investments to renewables. It is not how mega-corporations are programmed.

Bob Massie of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, observes, "We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now." He is right, but the ties that truly bind us economically to Chevron, Shell, Exxon and their like are not as investors, but as consumers. The lifeline we give them is not from buying their stock but burning their gas. Until that changes, they will be happily content to keep drilling, pumping, burning and raising the temperature of the planet. 

In the end the fundamental challenge remains the same – altering the energy consumption habits of massive numbers of people in deep ways very fast.  We have to make fundamental changes in the ways we transport ourselves, how we power our homes and factories, and how we build lives on a fragile planet that do not depend on relentless consumption of finite natural resources.  All of that requires smart and strategic political action aimed at both corporations and governments, and not just in one forum but thousands all at once, worldwide.  It's worth noting that strengthening these local efforts has also been an admirable and important focus of 350's new campaign.

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