Divestment Campaign: More Symbolism over Substance

Today on the National Journal Experts blog, Oil Sands Fact Check’s Matt Dempsey provides the facts about Bill McKibben’s anti-fossil fuel divestment campaign, showing that it is more about symbolism than substance. OSFC previously exposed the truth behind the Rockefeller Brother Fund (RBF) divestment announcement last month, pointing out what many reporters ignored: that RFB, which funds McKibben’s divestment campaign, had yet to divest themselves.

Also See OSFC Post “The Truth About the Anti-Keystone XL Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Divestment Campaign: More Symbolism over Substance

The divestment campaign epitomizes the tendency of anti-fossil fuel groups to spend massive amounts of time and resources on symbolic gestures that will have essentially no impact on the environment. They may be successful in generating headlines and drawing attention to their cause, but in the end, even the organizers of the campaign acknowledge that divestment is more symbolism than substance.

The divestment campaign is the brainchild of Bill McKibben and his group 350.org, a well-funded anti-fossil fuel organization that draws substantial resources from billionaire donors like Tom Steyer and receives grants from foundations like the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund. McKibben is likely best known for leading the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet McKibben and his group have been criticized for focusing time and attention away from the bigger climate fight, even by those who are sympathetic to their cause. As Northeastern University Professor Matthew Nisbet writes, McKibben’s efforts “make for potent cultural symbols, but such strategies can deflect attention from far more substantive goals.” And Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, write in the New York Times that, “Like Keystone — which even under the best of circumstances would, by our calculations, have resulted in a global temperature difference of .0002 degrees Celsius — there is absolutely no reason to think that convincing investors to sell their interest in Exxon will have any significant impact on either the physics or politics of climate change.”

While opponents of Keystone XL have staged numerous attention-grabbing stunts, public support for the pipeline is “almost universal.” In fact, a majority of Democrats and independents support the project. And while McKibben and his allies have cheered President Obama’s six year delay of the pipeline, Politico recently reported, “Keystone is stalled, yet oil is booming.” No wonder liberals like New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait called McKibben’s Keystone XL campaign “a huge environmentalist mistake” and a “bizarre misallocation of political attention.”

The same can be said of the divestment campaign. Once again, McKibben and his allies have succeeded in generating headlines in major news outlets touting recent successes in their campaign. But a closer look reveals that McKibben’s claims are more hype than reality.

Take, for instance, divestment campaigns on college campuses. As of today, only twelve small colleges across the globe have divested from fossil fuels compared to 36 that have declined. Those twelve schools have a total endowment of $1.16 billion with a student enrollment of 58,000 students.  Compare that to the schools that have rejected divestment, which have 649,000 students and endowments totaling over $81 billion.

Why are so few colleges on board?  The President of Harvard, Drew Faust, put it well pointing out that since we depend on fossil fuels to run our economy, divesting from them is inconsistent at best.  As he said, “Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”  Tulane University’s president Scott Cowen pointed out that divestment would have no impact whatsoever on the climate: “In our view, the divestiture of fossil fuel companies in our endowment will not have any significant impact on mitigating global warming, especially in comparison to more meaningful actions that can be taken to address the myriad causes of climate change.”

Divestment campaigners did capture headlines in New York City earlier this month when the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation (RBF) announced that it would be divesting from fossil fuels. The irony, which many reporters missed at the time, is that the RBF has been funding McKibben’s group for years and it had yet to divest itself. The announcement also ran into a few slight snags: the first is that the individual members of the Rockefeller family seem to have no intention of personally divesting. Further, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out while RBF “is publicly swearing off fossil fuels, it’s not divesting from the biggest oil company in the U.S.: Exxon Mobil Corp.”  And, as Politico reported, RBF also doesn’t seem too keen to divest from natural gas, even though 350.org is on the front lines of the anti-fracking movement: “RBF’s Heintz…declined to rule out a scenario in which natural gas investment remains intact.”

One of the strangest moments in the divestment campaign was their odd announcement that President Obama had supported divestment in a recent speech. This, of course, was wishful thinking. Speaking a couple months later at Northwestern University (a college that the divestment crowd has targeted), President Obama touted the fact that “the number one oil and gas producer in the world is no longer Russia or Saudi Arabia; it’s America.”  He also emphasized the tremendous benefits that come along with oil and gas development, including bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

To illustrate just how extreme anti-fossil fuel groups have become, even leading figures they often cite have called them out.  Perhaps the most telling statement comes from former NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Writing in the Des Moines Register just this week, Hansen noted that “‘Big Green,’ the large environmental organizations…have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem.” John Podesta, former president of the Center for American Progress and now Counselor to the President in the Obama administration said recently, “If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn that switch off tomorrow, that is a completely impractical way of moving toward a clean-energy future.”  He continued, “With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community, if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s sort of an impractical suggestion.”

The irony for the divestment crowd is that as the United States has become the top oil and natural gas producer, it has also dramatically reduced its carbon emissions. You’d think folks who claim that climate change is the greatest threat to mankind would celebrate this huge achievement in carbon reductions. Instead, they continue to prefer symbolism over substance.

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