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The climate divestment campaign is heading down the wrong track

The climate divestment campaign is heading down the wrong track

The polarisation of the issue could lead to policy paralysis.

I am concerned that the campaign Link to RI story, in calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies, is heading down the wrong track. My concern starts with the declared strategy that lies behind Bill McKibben’s call which is, in a word, to create an ‘enemy’ in order to mobilize public opinion. As noted in Bill McKibben’s foundational article: “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in Rolling Stone Magazine on July 19, 2012: “A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies…[Luckily]…the planet does indeed have an enemy….we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
This harsh and uncompromising language is problematic and let me suggest a number of points in response:

1. We can all agree that there is a critical need to address climate change to transition away from fossil fuels, and move to a more sustainable energy system. That said, we are all complicit in our energy system; our current reliance on fossil fuels is a problem we all share.

2. does not differentiate between companies that are making substantial efforts to reduce impacts and those that do not. This is unfair and makes enemies out of organizations and people who ought to be our allies.

3. Campaigns based on the identification of enemies by definition are polarizing. Polarization, I fear, will only lead to further paralysis amongst elected officials. Further, polarization does not foster the depth of understanding we need for the public, government, investors and corporations to take the necessary actions to address the challenges presented by global climate change.

4. The energy industry will be crucial to transforming our system in terms of setting a carbon price, investing in renewables, and increasing expenditures on research and development to reduce environmental impacts.

5. The divestment campaign is unlikely to meet with success – at least within the oil and gas sector. About 75% of global crude oil production is in the hands of state-owned corporations including Saudi Aramco, Gazprom (Russia), China National Petroleum Corporation, National Iranian, Petroleos de Venezuela, Petrobras (Brazil) and Petronas (Malaysia).

6. McKibben draws on the apartheid divestment for inspiration. This is not a good case for comparison. South Africa was a relatively small and geographically isolated economy. In contrast, fossil fuels dominate our energy system – about 80% of global primary energy. It is going to take decades to move away from fossil fuels.

7. The campaign bears a strong resemblance to the efforts some NGOs have made to shut down


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