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Will Fossil Fuel Divestment Be a Key Tactic in 2013 Battle over Climate Change?

Bill McKibben and Christian Parenti debate the effectiveness of a growing fossil fuel divestment campaign.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a conversation about global warming and how to confront it. Some have called 2013 "year zero" in the battle over climate change. This comes as 2012 was a year of extreme weather, from the melting of the Arctic to Superstorm Sandy, to the massive typhoon in the Philippines. It was also the warmest year on record in the United States, with massive droughts and frequent wildfires.

In the presidential debates, neither of the major-party candidates took on climate change. But right after the election, environmentalist Bill McKibben and the group  350.org hit the road to begin a campaign focused on confronting the role of the fossil fuel industry, what McKibben calls, quote, "Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization."

The tour has since ended, but the fossil fuel divestment campaign it launched is growing. College students on more than 190 campuses are calling on their universities to pull endowments, estimated at a total of $400 billion, out of the fossil fuel industry. Two schools, Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, have already taken action. Unity College President Stephen Mulkey explained the decision in part by saying, quote, "The colleges and universities of this nation have billions invested in fossil fuels. Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical." At Harvard, the school with the country’s largest endowment, 72 percent of students voted in favor of divesting from fossil fuels, but officials have pushed back.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Seattle has called on his city to strip fossil fuels from its two main pension funds, and Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island raised the campaign in a speech from the Senate floor last month.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: We are, as I’ve said in previous speeches, sleepwalking. As Congress sleepwalks, Americans actually are taking action on their own. In coordination with the nonprofit organization 350.org, for example, students at more than 150 colleges and universities across the country are pressing those institutions to sell off the portions of their endowment portfolios that are invested in fossil fuel companies. These students are imploring their schools to weigh the real costs of climate change against the drive for greater financial returns and divest from the polluters. This type of divestment campaign was employed effectively in the 1980s to pull investments from South Africa during apartheid. With American college and university endowments estimated to total more than $400 billion, this movement by students deserves significant attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, speaking last month.

In light of the weak climate deal reached at the U.N. climate change summit in Doha, Qatar, many environmentalists have welcomed the fossil fuel divestment campaign as the new frontier in their activism, seeing it as, well, in the same spirit as the ongoing campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience against Keystone XL pipeline here in the U.S. and the growing Idle No More campaign in Canada for indigenous and environmental rights.

But some have raised questions about the effectiveness of a widespread fossil fuels divestment campaign. One of them is journalist Christian Parenti, recently wrote "Problems With the Math: Is 350’s Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete?"

Well, to discuss this and much more, we’re joined now by Bill McKibben of 350.org and Christian Parenti. Bill was just voted Vermonter of the Year by the  Burlington Free Press. He is founder and director of 350.org and author of  Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He joins us via  Democracy Now! video stream from his home in Vermont. Christian Parenti, professor of sustainable development at the School for International Training, author of  Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

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