Citizen Action Monitor

Bill McKibben defends effectiveness of student-led divestment campaign targetted at fossil fuel industry

Michael Parenti commends the effort but questions the campaign’s overall strategy and tactics

No 646 Posted by fw, January 7, 2013

“…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.”Bill McKibben

I’m not sure any of us are clear on how to actually get this to turn into legal power to check these firms, because it’s not going to be moral suasion alone. They’re not going to back off of this incredibly profitable industry because people don’t like them, because people already hate them.”Christian Parenti

In a recent candid conversation, Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of, and journalist and professor, Christian Parenti, exchanged opposing viewpoints about the potential effectiveness of McKibben’s divestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry. This post features a 17-minute video of the exchange, followed by a summary of selected highlights from the transcript. To view the original program and access the complete transcript, click on the linked title below.

Will Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Be Key Tactic in 2013 Battle over Climate Change?, Democracy Now, January 2. 2013



Right after the election, McKibben and hit the road to begin a campaign focused on confronting the role of the fossil fuel industry — what McKibben calls “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.

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 praised the campaign in a speech from the Senate floor last month.

Although many environmentalists welcome the fossil fuel divestment campaign as the new frontier in their activism, some have raised questions about the effectiveness of a widespread fossil fuels divestment campaign, including Michael Parenti, who wrote the recent article, Problems With the Math: Is 350’s Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete? We host a discussion about the campaign with McKibben and Parenti.

Bill McKibben, speaking first, says the aim of the fossil fuel campaign is to “put a ding” in the industry’s public image and put it on the defensive

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 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, an 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.

Christian Parenti responds: divestment actually targets boards not corporations; the campaign does not translate “political spectacle” into “political power”; divestment will not hurt companies’ bottom line; it won’t contribute to public’s political education; and apartheid and tobacco campaigns proved that it was state action that really turned the tide against the bad guys

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, 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.

Bill McKibben does not disagree with Parenti’s critique, but emphasizes that divestment is just one part of 350’s multifaceted campaign. “There are lots of things that we have to do,” including a major demonstration on President’s Day. Moreover, he takes issue with the importance that Parenti attaches to the role of state governments

Well, look, I think Christian got it just right in his original article in The Nation. He said this isn’t a complete strategy. And it’s not. Look, there’s no—this is the biggest problem we’ve ever faced, climate change, and there are lots of things that we have to do.

But this is a very powerful one. You know, when Nelson Mandela got out of prison, his first trip was—one of his first foreign trips was to the U.S. And he didn’t go to the White House; he went straight to the University of California to thank students there who had forced the divestment of $3 billion worth of stock in companies that did business with apartheid, big companies who you couldn’t put out of business, like General Electric, but that nonetheless felt the heat and made some change. The tobacco analogy is a good one. It’s not—I mean, Christian, I think, may have misspoke when he said that smoking went down when states banned the use of tobacco. No states banned the use of tobacco, but we did change the conversation in profound ways. And eventually, once public opinion leads, then states follow.

It’s, I’m afraid, at this point not a good idea to wait for our so-called leaders to lead on climate change. So far, they haven’t done it. But maybe we can open up, as Christian suggests, I think, some space for them to operate. If we can remove, to some degree, any degree, their fear of the fossil fuel industry, which after all was the biggest player in the last election campaign—I mean, if you’re an investor in a fossil fuel company, you’re helping them corrupt our democracy. If we can remove some of that fear, then maybe we will open up some more room for our champions.

By the way, this is not the only strategy we’re going after, that’s for sure. I hope everybody is well aware that on President’s Day weekend, the environmental movement— and the Sierra Club have sort of been leading the organizing—are going to Washington for what will be the biggest environmental demonstration in a very long time, and it’s all about the climate legacy of this administration and continuing this fight on Keystone. As you know, the decision is coming up sometime in the course of the year, and it will be the purest test of whether Obama is going to side with the fossil fuel industry or with science. It’s a tough test and a tough fight, but I’m very glad that we have allies not only from people like Christian, but from young people all over the country. People—you know, people went through this long period of saying, “Oh, young people are apathetic about these issues. Why are they not in the street? Why are they not doing anything?” It’s really, really good to see them taking the lead. And as I say, it is them taking the lead; it’s not me, it’s not

Christian Parenti insists you can’t overlook what government can and does do: how legal power can be used as an effective counterpower tool; how governments’ and universities’ purchasing power to buy green can jump-start a clean-energy sector. Moral suasion alone is not enough

You know, my concern is about divestment. And to repeat, I think it’s great that there’s mobilization. I just think we’ve got to be realistic about what’s going on. And, you know, one of the problems with this idea of stripping the social license to operate from fossil fuel companies is that it plays into a sort of, you know, a media-oriented strategy that may not be that effective. If you think that the fossil fuel industry, oil industry—the oil industry is the least liked industry in the U.S. Every year Gallup does a poll, and oil is at the bottom. So, they don’t really have a social license to operate, and it doesn’t seem to affect them. So we have to think about how to mobilize—how to leverage this mobilization into ways that are actually going to hurt the fossil fuel industry.

And I think, ultimately, in the long term, we have to have a conversation about government, and not just about what’s wrong with it and how it’s broken, but what it can do and what it does do. And we have—the EPA has, you know, the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, under EPA v. Massachusetts, and there is—if there is enough pressure, there is legal space to really start imposing a de facto carbon tax on the economy by making it expensive to pollute. The other tool that is here already is that government spends an enormous amount of money on energy. It has enormous fleet of vehicles, enormous fleet of buildings. And this doesn’t require going to the Republicans to ask them to pony up more money for renewable energy. If the government uses its power of purchasing to pursue a big green buy, clean purchasing, that will help jump-start a clean energy sector. And that’s something that universities can do, as well. I mean, I was looking at Harvard’s green plan. You know, they don’t own any electric vehicles yet. I mean, OK, Harvard doesn’t own that many vehicles, but that might be a place to pressure, as well.

But I think, ultimately, down the line, we have to be very realistic about, like, the fact that the way the fossil fuel industries are going to be checked is with state power. And I commend Bill McKibben and everyone in 350 for this effort, but I don’t—I’m not sure any of us are clear on how to actually get this to turn into legal power to check these firms, because it’s not going to be moral suasion alone. They’re not going to back off of this incredibly profitable industry because people don’t like them, because people already hate them.

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