Futile Tactic or Powerful Strategy?

The False Futility Factor

People who defend the status quo often take shelter behind the notion that “our divestment will not influence the share price or activities of fossil fuel companies since we have a comparatively small holding.” This argument is both incorrect and besides the point.

It is a false argument because it relies on the false implicit assumption that ONLY our endowment will divest from fossil fuel companies. It does not take into account the ‘domino effect‘ that our divestment will have on other campaigns given the prominence of our university. Our divestment will propel other institutions to make the same decision, helping the global divestment campaign reach a tipping point where local campaigns rapidly increase in number and successes.

The tipping point for the South Africa Apartheid divestment campaign was when the University of California divested its $1.7 billion in holdings in companies engaged in business in South Africa. The political conversation changed so much that Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, overriding President Reagan’s veto.

Divestment’s Cumulative Effect

Besides the cumulative effect of many divestments, which will in fact reduce the market for the shares of companies contributing to climate destabilization, there is also the moral and ethical cloud that will be imposed on the industry. The cumulative effect of divestment by hundreds or perhaps thousands of endowments, pension funds, religious groups and other pools of money managed for the social good can have a real impact on the life-denying business models of the companies from which we urge divestment.

While academics continue to debate in economic terms whether the apartheid divestment campaign indeed played a role in toppling the regime, the individuals who took part in the campaign know that the true impact was political, not economic. Nelson Mandela also acknowledged this and, upon being released from prison and traveling to the United States, made his first stop the University of California, Berkley, where he thanked the students for their efforts. It should also be noted that Dr. Desmond Tutu himself, one of the foremost moral figures of our time, has also embraced the fossil fuel divestment campaign, calling for an “apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.”

Tarnishing the Destructive Brands

The devastation of our climate system can be remedied in part by the destruction of the reputation of those companies who not only exploit our fossil fuel addiction, but shamelessly pump money into the political system to block legislation to address the climate crisis. It is because of this influence that the United States is the only major country that lacks a comprehensive federal law that addresses climate change. The devious tactics employed by the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel companies to target scientists, politicians, and organizations who take a stand against the fossil fuel industry are infamous and well documented; for instance, the United States is the only major country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and papers published in 2005 revealed that a Bush Administration official wrote to the Global Climate Coalition, whose members included ExxonMobil, British Petroleum and Shell, saying that the President had “rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you [the Global Climate Coalition].” Divestment is an imperative ethical response to the nefarious dealings of the money behind the fossil fuel industry, which chooses personal wealth over society’s health and wellbeing.

Burnishing Columbia’s Reputation

The Columbia University administration is on the wrong side of history with divestment from climate-clobbering fossil fuel companies in its refusal to address the issue. It took over 10 years for Columbia to finally divest from apartheid-related stocks after students first raised the issue in 1978, and that too was a moral and ethical issue now recognized as having been of huge proportions. Let us hope that the political, overly money-oriented administration does not take nearly as long with this divestment. Based on scientific predictions, we have precious little time left to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and avoid runaway climate change.