Why Divestment Works by Nate Osborne
If you ever find yourself in a debate with Matt Alonsozana and Alex Tingle, I would think twice before signing up. The poll taken before and after the debate showed that more people were against divestment after the debate than when they walked in. You could call that a loss for divestment, but that’s not how I see it.
How I see it, UGBC and BC Fossil Free have opened up the conversation on divestment across campus. The news is spreading rapidly about the threat of climate change and the overwhelming political power of the fossil fuel companies. The necessity for action is becoming evermore clear, and that is nothing less than a success. The only uncertainty lies in the tactic for making this change.
So then what about divestment? Erin Sutton and TJ Buckley did a great job defending the case for divestment, but up against Matt and Alex some people seemed to doubt that the case for divestment is as strong as we believe it is.
I am one of many people who disagree with Matt and Alex and believe that divestment is in fact an effective and powerful tactic in enacting the change that this world needs for the sake of political, economic, environmental, social, and climate justice. The rest of this article will be an attempt to clarify and further explain three points that I saw people in the audience express the most doubt about:
1.) Divestment is an ineffective political tool.
2.) BC’s divestment will have no effect.
3.) Divestment is a destructive tactic and our situation requires a constructive one.
What I say below is in no way the final position or comment of BC Fossil Free. We hope that this can be part of an ongoing conversation driven by a thirst for justice and care for the well being of humanity.
Divestment is an effective, constructive political tool and the change must start with BC:
Yes, divestment is a political, NOT financial tactic. It would be both impossible and ineffective to financially harm the fossil fuel industry from university divestment. The theory behind divestment as a strategy is that the political system is influenced by social values, where the values and demands of communities dictate the policy that is pushed in Washington. In this way, divestment can be paralleled with the Civil Rights Movement, as this movement called on religious and moral truth to change social values and demanded racial equality and justice. Because of the success of this movement, politicians no longer are elected on the platform of re-segregating bathrooms, nor would they ever support policy that may label them as racists. So while the divestment movement is different from the civil rights movement in tactics, it is comparable in its function as a social tool to enact lasting political change.
How does changing social values and mobilizing social action incite change at a political level? Well as corrupt as the political system is, it does listen to the people. Congress in particular is set up structurally so that senators and representatives need the support of the public in order to gain and retain office. When members of Congress are in session in Washington, they are looking to put their name on legislation that is favored by their constituents. When those members travel back to their constituency, they make sure everyone knows about that policy and who to thank for it. Congressmen need votes to survive, and position taking on policy that their constituents demand is one of the main ways of getting them.
The problem we face today – the reason widespread political action is not yet being taken to confront climate change – is that not enough constituents are demanding climate justice. As of now, the fossil fuel industry has the hold over politicians. Favoring the fossil fuel industry is a win-win situation for them: they get tons of campaign donations and lose no votes in their constituency for doing so. In fact, in light of the large percentage of Americans who believe the natural gas industry will bring about national energy independence, breaking up with fossil fuel companies may actually harm politicians. Thus, as of now there is little incentive for Congressmen to refuse campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry and run on a climate justice platform for carbon taxes and increased renewable energy infrastructure projects. But if climate change awareness grows at the social level and the percentage of constituents demanding climate justice increases, then politicians will have the incentive to push for climate reform policy. And if politicians can win elections by supporting climate change, then the climate justice movement will gain the political power needed for structural change.
Divestment is a tool that can build the social power necessary to incentivize politicians to take action against climate change. Similar to the Civil Rights Movement in function, the divestment movement changes social values by educating the public on the dire threat of climate change and mobilizing them to demand climate justice from politicians. Like every movement, it must start locally and spread nationally. The starting point of the divestment movement is university campuses. In less than a handful of years, roughly 400 divestment groups have emerged on college campuses. Universities are starting to get the idea that this movement has strong roots and a necessary purpose, as nine colleges and universities have committed to divestment, seven of those being since 2013. As it has grown, the fight has expanded to religious institutions, cities, counties, and institutions ready and willing to divest. People of all wakes of life are getting behind this movement, even politicians. In 2014, it is becoming commonplace for state legislators to entertain the idea of divestment and even openly support divestment, including Massachusetts’ own Treasurer Steven Grossman. In response to the recent social mobilization for climate justice, it is becoming increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore climate change. The evidence is clear, the consequences of inaction are scary, and the increasing strength and favor of the divestment movement is pressing forward the social value and political priority of climate justice. How significant the change is will depend on how much we care and how loud we get.
But political power is only half the battle; what about the technology and infrastructure changes themselves? How much is this going to cost, and what sacrifices will we have to make? I believe that as the social and political support for climate change increases, so will the profitability, size, and political power of the renewable energy industry, as well as an increase in efficiency, access and cheapness of renewable technology (granted, I am assuming that cheaper and more efficient renewable energy sources are a possibility). Here is why: As the social and political support for renewable energy increases, so will the demand for renewable energy. In addition, as climate change consequences worsen and cause costly damage, the necessity for renewable energy will be clearer and more pressing. When the demand and need for a technology increases, so does the opportunity for growth and profit. Investors will see renewable energy with lower risks and higher promises of return, making it an increasingly desirable investment. With more investors, the investments into research and development will increase. In addition, the industry itself will grow as it becomes an attractive investment and more people enter the market in order to compete for the rising demand. Lastly, as the renewable energy grows, so does its lobbying power. Between the voice of the constituency and the increased ability for the renewable energy industry to support politicians, the likelihood of carbon taxes increases substantially. And with carbon taxes, fossil fuels become more expensive and less appealing. Thus, by building the divestment movement at a social level, the political power of the fossil fuel industry will decrease and be replaced by a growing renewable energy industry that has the technological capacity to replace fossil fuels and political support to implement renewable energy structures. Moreover, the renewable energy industry needs our collective voices and support in order to become what the world needs it to be.