The results of last week’s University Senate elections also revealed student approval, by a substantial margin, for a ballot initiative calling on the University to divest from the 200 largest companies in the fossil fuel industry. In an op-ed in these pages defending the initiative, Daniela Lapidous of Barnard Columbia Divest cited the following observations as grounds for a “moral obligation” in favor of divestment: Fossil fuel companies “profit from the destruction of our environments and communities, they fund campaigns to discredit climate scientists, and their record profits tie up our political system and our potential for a clean energy economy.”
I will not deny that the fossil fuel industry has profited from activities with grievous environmental consequences, assisted in efforts to unduly undermine public confidence in climate science, and exerted its political influence in opposition to meaningful climate change policy. Lapidous is also right to emphasize the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the risks posed by publicly listed companies’ practice of counting proven fossil fuel reserves as assets. (Although it is important to note that similar, if not greater, risks are posed by the reserves claimed by state-owned companies, many of whose parent governments rely on their revenue for essential fiscal and economic support.) However, I would sound a note of skepticism about the appropriateness of the divestment campaign as a means to the ultimate end of arresting greenhouse gas emissions.
To begin, I would propose that the BCD-led divestment campaign is extremely unlikely to have any measurable effect on the financial position of the companies in question. University President Lee Bollinger has already indicated that he is unsympathetic to divestment. But even if Columbia, and indeed all of its peer institutions, were to divest, such a move is unlikely to undermine investor confidence in an industry whose products are currently indispensable to virtually all modern economic activity.
There are still several arguments one might advance in favor of divestment. One might suggest that it is simply the prudent long-term course for the University’s finances: as the Carbon Tracker Initiative points out, the advent of a serious international effort to limit greenhouse emissions would render significant portions of these companies’ assets largely worthless. On a systemic, long-term level, this may be an important and overlooked source of risk, although current political conditions might suggest that Columbia’s endowment managers would have to be possessed of an altogether irrational optimism to be seriously concerned by this risk any time soon.
One might instead suggest that the BCD campaign aims to “raise awareness” and consequently to mobilize political pressure whose effect would be greater than the strictly financial consequences of divestment. It remains difficult to imagine, though, how any degree of pressure not culminating in actual legislation could dissuade the industry from extractive activities that have proven so tremendously profitable. The best that might be hoped for, it would seem, is a public shaming to convince fossil fuel companies to withdraw support from organizations that deny basic climate science. Thus the divestment campaign amounts at best to a sort of second-order form of advocacy: convincing the public to pressure the industry to create conditions more conducive to convincing the public to take substantive action to limit emissions.
This is not to say that such an outcome would not be salutary. However, I suspect that the initiative’s popularity had less to do with such intricate incrementalist considerations and more to do with its status as a proxy for broader views on climate change. And insofar as we acknowledge the divestment campaign to be an exercise solely in political communication, rather than financial coercion, it has some liabilities in its representation of the climate problem. The divestment strategy suggests that fossil fuel use is the sort of malign activity that can be easily isolated from the economy at large, when in fact it is deeply entangled with everything we do. The strategy radically understates the most important and unnerving feature of the climate problem—its complexity. Divestment campaigners of another era could have no qualms about desiring an immediate end to South African apartheid, but we would not wish to stop burning fossil fuels immediately even if we could. Acknowledging the extent of our dependence on these fuels may be unpalatable because it would suggest that, given how long we have waited, the action necessary to avoid intolerable consequences is likely to be broadly painful.
Lapidous suggests that resort is made to the divestment strategy because “our government has failed us” with regard to climate policy. Divestment thus offers the comforting prospect of individual action to accommodate political indifference. Climate change appears to be the sort of problem, however, for which private efforts alone—dispiriting as it sounds—will never be enough. Factoring in the huge negative externalities in the current market prices of fossil fuels will require major changes to national policy, and indeed wide international coordination of such policy changes. In the United States in particular, meaningful climate policy may depend most of all on somehow rebuilding public confidence in the possibility of legitimate collective action, especially in the economic realm. Efforts that postpone this fundamental task may find themselves creating expectations for change they are ill-prepared to fulfil.
Henry Willson is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy. He is secretary general of CMUNNY 8 and a former photo editor for Spectator. Willful Meandering runs alternate Tuesdays.
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