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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.

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We welcome you both to  Democracy Now! Happy New Year. Bill, let’s begin with you. Can you lay out this campaign that 350.org has launched around the country?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. And let me say that really, in this case, 350 and our other groups we’re working with, I think, are more the kind of vector than the virus. This is really students at campuses around the country and now others following their lead—the mayor of Seattle, religious denominations—people who no longer want to be profiting from the wreckage of the climate, and who understand not that we can bankrupt Exxon—we can’t—but that we can put a ding in their public image, that we can begin to do to them what happened, say, to the tobacco industry. I think that’s the reason that, say, Desmond Tutu was so pleased to hear that this work was going on. He filmed a video that we showed at those 22 big sold-out evening events in city after city after city. And he said, you know, "Climate change is the great moral issue since apartheid, and we need the same kind of tools to bring it to people’s attention."

We badly need governments to act, but of course governments haven’t acted over the last 25 years, despite the huge efforts of many of us to get them to act. One of the reasons is that the power of the fossil fuel industry in our political system is so great that governments are constrained, not just in Washington, but in capitals around the world. So we’re trying to change that political dynamic some. We’re trying to really take on the fossil fuel industry and demonstrate—the sort of core of all of this, Amy, is a long  piece I wrote for  Rolling Stone last summer, a piece that went oddly viral, that demonstrates pretty convincingly that the fossil fuel industry has in its reserves five times the amount of carbon that even the most conservative governments think would be safe to burn. They are, in other words, a outlaw against the laws of physics. We’ve got now to put them on the defensive. That’s what the fight is about. And that’s why it’s good news that this has suddenly turned into the largest student movement in a very long time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Christian Parenti, can you respond? You’ve been critical of this campaign for divestment. Can you explain why?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, well, I mean, I’m really glad to see this, all this wave of activism, but I question—I wrote a piece questioning some of what was in the early roll-out of this, that there was—this divestment campaign was taking the fight directly to the corporations and hitting their bottom line. Now, first of all, 350.org and other groups have been doing great work that already took the fight directly to the corporations—fighting Keystone XL, etc. And my argument is that by focusing on divestment, you don’t actually take the fight closer to the corporations; you take it to the board of trustees. And I’m not against the divestment campaign. I think that the question is: How does the divestment campaign turn a political spectacle into real political power? Because the thing is, divesting from fossil fuel companies isn’t going to hurt their bottom line. Fossil fuel companies make money by selling fossil fuel. Many of them don’t even sell stock. Koch Industries doesn’t sell stock; it’s a privately held company. Seventy percent of the oil reserves in the world are held by state-owned companies.

So, if the universities all divest, what might this do? It might lower the price of stock a little bit. That’s not going to hurt their profitability. It can—you know, there’s a way in which, early on, there was an element of miseducation unintentionally involved in this. And I think one of the few things that progressive movements can guarantee—we can’t guarantee victory, but we can guarantee a good political education. So, I think we have to be realistic about what divestment will achieve. And you have the direct impact of lowering the fossil fuel—the stock prices of fossil fuel companies. What will that do? I don’t think it will do that much to hurt them. You have the other aspect, the indirect aspect, which is this huge spectacle of students mobilizing. How can that be turned into real political power? And I argue that, ultimately—and I don’t know how exactly—it comes down, I think, to state action. If you look at the anti-apartheid movement, you look at the tobacco campaign, ultimately what happens is that governments step in. In the anti-apartheid struggle, 25 states imposed trade sanctions on South Africa, including the U.S. Reagan tried to veto this; he was overridden by the Senate. That’s what really turned the tide, and divestment was part of that. Tobacco—when do people stop smoking? When states start banning the sale and use of tobacco. That’s when people start quitting smoking and the profits go down. So I think we have to be realistic about what the limits and also the real possibilities of divestment are.

 
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