Why 350.org’s divestment campaign is on the money

Author and thought leader Bill McKibben of 350.org toured the nation recently trying to persuade young and old alike that we’re in a climate-change emergency and must immediately reduce carbon use or face threats to humanity and ecosystems not seen in millennia.

Like Al Gore and others, McKibben faces the primary obstacle of apathy in America regarding humanity’s impact on climate change. After all, our lifestyles have not yet been negatively impacted by rising carbon in the atmosphere. Even in the face of Hurricane Sandy and more severe firestorms, the rapid loss of species, massive deforestation, and the melting glaciers and poles, most people still don’t take climate change seriously enough to believe that these emergent realities ought to change human behavior.

Rather, governments and big business hold firm in the name of job preservation and creation, as if the global economy will matter if ecological collapse occurs. And investors, even ones that claim to be sustainable or socially responsible, don’t seem to protest either, as they quietly include fossil fuel companies in their portfolios. 

Some activist shareholders in the socially responsible investment (SRI) arena argue that only owners of stock in fossil fuel companies can influence them by encouraging them to acknowledge climate change risk and produce reports on how it may affect share value. Divestment, industry insiders suggest, doesn’t apply enough pressure to achieve the desired outcome.

But divestment is sometimes an appropriate strategy. I was a college freshman in 1984 and was part of a takeover of the Tufts University administration building to demand divestment from endowment companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid regime. Critics then argued similarly that divestment not only couldn’t foster a regime change, but might actually economically harm the people these actions intend to help. 

Since both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu later attributed the fall of apartheid in part to American students’ meaningful pressure on endowments and national policies, we have surely seen that there can be a right side of history to be on in such matters. Now, because our planet and its species are in grave danger, we are in a similar situation today. The question is, what should we do about it? In particular, what should capitalists do about it? 

While it is true that divesting doesn’t directly change corporate behavior, certainly a massive trend to sell off stocks in this industry would result in their lower value. If the industry were less attractive as a long-term investment, that would undoubtedly force changes within these companies. 

Next page: A fossil-fuel-free portfolio