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A letter to the community: the power of divestment

The Strategic Power and Logic of a Well-Fought Divestment Campaign 

from Ian Oxenham ’15 and Samantha Shain ’14 of Divest Haverford

On March 4th, dozens of colleges participated in a Day of Action that would help our campaigns March Fourth towards a livable future. We hung a banner in the Dining Center because we want Haverford’s investment choices to be abundantly clear. Haverford invests in the fossil fuel industry and the returns on those investments contribute to the operating budget of the institution. Knowing that fossil fuel corporations hold a lot of the responsibility for environmental degradation, pollution and climate change, we are calling on the 200 with the most fossil fuels in reserve to keep 80% of their reserves underground. Though that may seem drastic, doing so is necessary if the world is to have a reasonable chance of meeting the 2009 Copenhagen Accord’s target of limiting warming to 2°C (3.6°F), an international agreement to which 141 countries, including the US, have acceded. Thus, until these corporations comply, we ask Haverford to withdraw the endowment money that it has invested in them.

We call for divestment in solidarity with people on the front lines of extreme resource extraction (like coal mining and hydrofracking) and victims of climate change all over the world, both present and future. Our investment choices today do not need to be our investment choices of tomorrow. While this change won’t happen overnight, our banner drop ought to signify “We aren’t going anywhere!” The divestment movement is gaining ground, and we want to see Haverford continue to be the leader in Quaker values and social responsibility that it has historically been.

But just what is divestment from the fossil fuel industry meant to accomplish, practically speaking? Contrary to some early analysis, the divestment movement is a political strategy, not an economic plan to “bring down” the fossil fuel corporations. Divestment is one tactic in an arsenal of non-violent choices that will bring us closer to climate justice and a livable future for everyone. We will lay out 2 strong objectives of divestment, and then we will show that divestment is not only reasonable, but also necessary, in combination with other tactics responding to the urgency of combating climate change and the political control of the fossil fuel industry.

The objective first is to help neutralize the fossil fuel industry’s influence by making it so unpopular and thus so politically radioactive that accepting their money or being perceived as serving their interests is too costly for any politician to risk. Counteracting their influence is vital to the success of any effective climate policy, since they are the largest, most effective political actor opposing action on climate change. They accomplish this through a strategic combination of lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and promoting disinformation that misrepresent the state of climate science. They have also used their influence to favor energy policies that structurally lock the US into carbon-intensive fossil fuel use, often at the expense of renewable alternatives and thus consumer choice between the two. Indeed, the fossil fuel industry currently gets between five and six times as much money in government subsidies (counting special tax breaks) as renewables do, despite the fact that they are probably the most profitable industry in human history. In effect, we are currently being forced to help fund the destruction of our own future.

The second objective of divestment is to perform a powerful, nationwide political action that conveys an unmistakable warning to our political institutions about the authenticity and depth of both our opposition to the fossil fuel industry and our commitment to a livable future. Furthermore, this action is also meant to convey the seriousness of our demands for effective climate action from our elected representatives in a way standard pressure tactics cannot. In combination with a weakening of the fossil fuel industry’s influence, this is meant to force a major political recalculation regarding climate change on the part of our national leaders as well as a reconceptualization of what “realistic” means in the context of climate policy.

One might still argue that this is an unrealistic strategy by claiming that the ambition of these goals is far beyond what divestment could possibly achieve. Yet such a conclusion depends on asking the wrong question, namely, whether or not a strategy of divestment in some sort of abstract isolation from any other effort can achieve these objectives. Given the amount of political inertia we need to overcome and the obscene wealth and entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, the answer to this question would almost certainly be a “no.” But that is most certainly not the situation in which the divestment campaign is operating. Thus the right question is whether or not, in combination with the full range of tactics from lobbying, mass rallies, direct action, and civil disobedience that are now being employed, divestment can make a significant contribution to achieving these objectives. The answer to this question is, in my opinion, an emphatic “yes,” because divestment is a tactic and the goal is climate justice.

The strength of that yes is due in large part to the fact that college fossil fuel divestment also interacts synergistically with these other tactics by helping to galvanize, publicize, and grow the larger climate justice movement. Many students who become involved in the divestment campaign also become involved in other types of efforts aimed at achieving the same larger goal. For example, many members of Haverfordians for a Livable Future (Divest Haverford is actually the name of our campaign, not our organization) attended the February 17th Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC and we also played an important role in recruiting enough students to justify chartering a full-sized bus to travel directly to and from Haverford.

Finally, lest one think that with all these other tactics being used, divestment is somehow “unnecessary,” we would like to re-emphasize our previous statement regarding how much we have to overcome. Even more importantly, the recent scientific literature on climate change shows that in all likelihood we need to have a dramatic about-face on carbon emissions by around 2020 if we want to avoid “extremely dangerous” levels of climate change in our own lifetime. (See, for example, the 2011 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Physical, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences article “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: Emission scenarios for a new world” by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows.) In other words, we are well past the point where we can afford to pull any punches when it comes to pushing for climate action. For the sake of social justice, as well as both our own personal futures and the future of humanity as a whole, we must now employ every possible nonviolent tactic we can in order to ensure a livable future.

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