Right Now, Divestment is a Great Climate Strategy

A lot has been written about campaigning for divestment from fossil fuels (for background see these excellent articles by Fred Pearce and Mark Gunther both at www.e360.Yale.edu ) but in this blog I try to take a planner’s point of view, and explore why it’s such a great campaign strategy at this point in the long-running climate issue.

With the November 2015 Paris Climate Summit fast approaching, success after success on University campuses is giving the climate movement ‘the Big Mo’ it lacked at Copenhagen.

These divestment campaigns have some direct impact on the economics of climate and energy but a much bigger one on the political weather, and so, on the context for that Paris meeting. To the credit of campaigners such as Bill McKibben and 350, key to their success is where they are being fought, and their vertical integration from ‘grass roots’ to global finance. Equally valuable, they should allow the leaders of NGO climate campaigns to keep their strategy options open for what comes after Paris.

1. Motivational Momentum

At least since 2013 commentators have pointed out that divestment campaigns – particularly on University and College campuses – have grown with ‘record breaking’ speed. That’s good but not as important as the fact that they provide a steady stream of visible and unambiguous successes.

Divestment is one small element in a much bigger virtuous web of positive feedback loops on climate and energy. That nexus includes falling costs of renewables, clean energy tech innovation, the growing impact of carbon risk analysis in markets, investment in renewables rather than fossil fuels, and the psychological-political benefits of renewable energy being perceived as real and normal but all this is very hard to communicate in tweets, sound-bites or media-moments.

Until there are some simple headline indicators that capture the degree of carbon dependency, or conversely how ‘renewable’ a company, country or portfolio is, and these can be reported as easily as major stock indexes, the true scale of the ongoing energy revolution will remain largely invisible except to those who go looking for it.

But even small victories on a college campus can be compelling because they show ‘popular opinion’ (mainly students) exercising a decisive pro-climate influence over big players in the energy system (the target fossil fuel companies whose shares get dumped). Divestment campaigns are creating model actions of what bigger players in societies should do and can do, by successfully taking them all the way from awareness, through alignment, to engagement and action.

They demonstrate that it is possible to cross that magical gap from where society is, to where society should be. They communicate well because they are not about saying but doing. Their discrete, limited scope sends a pure unequivocal meaning which is frustrating their critics.

Consequently they are populating the social and political mind space around ‘climate the issue’ with can-do successes, in which fossil fuel interests visibly lose. They are giving the ‘Big Mo’ to the pro-climate side in a way that was missing at Copenhagen, where all the talk of ‘a last chance’ and mobilisation of ‘protest’ readily decoded as desperation and powerlessness, incentivising people to ‘switch off’.

Like the Pope’s moral pronouncement, divestment victories can exert a positive influence on the forthcoming climate talks in Paris, and what comes before and after them, by creating a supportive context.

2. Fought On Our Ground

Many campaigns fail because campaigners try to fight on ground where the enemy is strong. Simply changing the theatre of conflict can often change the outcome.

These battles are being fought on ground that is largely beyond the influence of the opposition (i.e. oil, coal and gas industries). I realise that divestment campaigns are not just happening ‘on campus’ but the university ‘public’ (students) and the university ‘government’ (academics and administrators) is by and large more ‘progressive’ and much less prone to adopt climate sceptic positions than those of many other institutions.

Academic investment portfolios may be relatively small compared with other investments in fossil fuels but by being won, they help potentiate a domino effect, or salami slicing.

In the ‘domino’ case, winning one battle instrumentally helps bring about a subsequent success. For example Stanford University’s May 2014 decision to divest from coal could well have had some effect on California‘s State Pension Funds’ decision to do the same in June 2015.   It is likely that with their extensive networks of Alumni, many of whom they regularly pester with news updates, the divestment actions of Universities will also influence people whose student days are way behind them.

By ‘salami slicing’ I mean campaigns that remove one part of the problem first, often the most winnable, and then another part (eg Foundations), and so on, rather than attempting change across a broad front.  This was famously used in the end-game on anti-smoking campaigns, progressively eliminating the social space for smoking, starting with places where it was an issue of health and safety at work and where the threat came from secondary smoking.

Campaigners sometimes argue against starting from the most winnable targets. It is true that in some cases, winning a ‘local’ battle can rob a campaign of momentum if the engaged audience then feels satisfied and stops there. But whether or not this happens, depends upon the connectivity of the audiences and the system being influenced. Given the fact that many students are shortly going to disperse and launch themselves into careers, and that the causes they adopt at University often ‘stay with them’ for the rest of their lives, it seems more likely that involvement in a college divestment campaign will encourage people to support the same thing again later. This is a campaign strategy that may be building new resources and assets and growing campaign capital, rather than spending it.

  1. Exploiting A Tight Audience-Power Loop

A potential pitfall with ‘climate campaigns’ is that both the problem and the system by which it can be influenced, are effectively unbounded. Failure to find a bounded ‘case’ to work on, leaves campaigns vulnerable to being ‘framed out’ by opponents. For instance where a retailer under pressure redefines the issue as one of consumer choice.   Or for example where a local politician is asked to take action on a source of carbon emissions, and they are able to displace responsibility to a national level. Or where a national government can frame it upwards to ‘international negotiations’. This is why city-wide climate campaigns aimed at Mayors with city-wide powers, have often proved more effective than those aimed at national governments.

In this case the loop of responsibility between those in whose name the shares are held (the students), and the power to decide the content of the portfolio (lying with the university governing body), is a short and tight one. The administration and the ruling academics are usually on campus in the same place as the students. They see one another regularly, they can talk to one another, and it’s hard to avoid one another.   In many ways they also share very direct inter-dependencies, so there is a social incentive to reach agreement. Nobody else is much involved.   This is very different from the relationship between voters and a national government.

As a result, there isn’t much ‘long grass’ to kick the decision into. If campaign appeals are rejected (and it seems many are not being totally rejected), there is a good prospect that it is worth having another go (values expectancy).

The audience is also available. Students may work hard but they are consistently socially accessible and have the time for such campaigns in a way that many other people do not.

Even better, it’s not “their own” money that is being moved, in the sense that they can’t convert it to cash and spend it. It’s an investment in trust, designed to help everyone in the college community , not money that could be released for other purposes such as a holiday.

4. Vertical Integration

Some ‘climate campaigns’ are conceptualised, delivered and communicated solely at the personal behaviour or maybe street or community level.   While very satisfying to some, especially if applied to something we have heavily invested in (eg our house), to those driven by the ‘big picture’, this can seem disappointingly small beer. (Universities of course tend to be full of people who love big picture thinking and students tend to have few personal assets to which they can apply their values). Others succeed in embracing and communicating the big picture problem and big solution (eg via mass marches or twitter actions communicating slogans) but fall dispiritingly short when they come to action that delivers real world change.

The divestment campaigns have vertical integration, from the grass roots of the lawn outside the University Administration, to the world of international oil finance. It’s a force-multiplier and a strong cocktail of self-agency.

5. Keeping Options Open

Finally, at this juncture, divestment campaigns help keep open the window for NGO campaigners to decide which strategies to adopt after ‘Paris’.

The politics, social and economic dynamics of the ‘climate issue’ are currently in such rapid flux that it makes little sense for campaign groups to make hard and fast decisions now, about what to do with their very limited resources after Paris. In conditions of great uncertainty, or rather ‘incertitude’ where not all relevant probabilities can be known, an important test of a strategy is whether it will do any harm by closing off future options.

However big or numerous the disinvestment projects get, there is little danger that the effort will be wasted as a result of what happens in the next months, and they can probably neatly segue into whatever else needs to be done, and not just in the area of energy finance.

An obvious short-term target is divestment by the Catholic Church. Just what is that organisation really doing to act on the Pope’s Encyclical, either in terms of greening its own electricity or divesting from fossil fuels ? So far it seems to have been given an easy ride by media and campaigners suitably awe-struck by the very existence of the Encyclical. It’s pretty much a ‘banker’ that the actions of the Catholic Church will remain full of campaign potential beyond Paris.

Under-estimating What’s Possible

Likewise, the clearest risk for ‘Paris’ is probably that politicians do too little because they under-estimate what’s possible. As governments prepare for the big meeting, the climate “maths” and the climate-realities look worse than the official versions.   At the same time, country commitments, actual emission reductions and decarbonization are all going better than many expected. Conventional political wisdom had it that changing our energy system would be a slower, more gradual, costlier and more painful process. So, by working on out-dated assumptions, politicians and officials may under-estimate what can be done, and then decide to under-state the risk and urgency to fit, and so do too little to be effective.

In so far as divestment can help change this by giving a sense of opening political space, it’s a plus. Divestment campaigns achieve this through by-passing the political system but an even bigger prize will be if they also create a body of financially literate activists who can help fix the politics.

Dismantling The Old System

As analysts like Nick Mabey of E3G have pointed out, decarbonization is now affordable and becoming cheaper. Who today would create a new energy system from scratch, based on fossil fuels ? Renewable energy is now the generation system of choice, and introducing clean energy is not a technical or economic problem. It’s dismantling the old system that is now the issue, and that is mainly a political problem. More and more fossil fuel assets may be become stranded but the influence of the fossil lobby is entrenched.

In most governments it is probably still Finance Ministers who get to draw the red lines that limit climate commitments and who are most wedded to the fossil era. Many may have deep political and even personal links to the oil, gas or coal industry. Political donations are one factor but social commitments can be just as important, along with the almost inevitable lag in understanding a fast-changing reality.   Some, such as the UK’s George Osborne, are even extending tax breaks to the faltering fossil fuel industry and impeding renewables, in order to play short term party politics.

Ignore the Critics

I’ll try to look at possible strategic choices for climate campaigns post-Paris in another blog but meanwhile, one thought for the divestment campaigners: ignore your critics. As Mark Gunther notes, these critics tend to argue that divestment efforts would be better used elsewhere, such as on ‘positive engagement’ with oil companies. They also deride the sums divested as not even a ‘blip’ in global energy finance.

Such moral hazard arguments (“if you put your efforts elsewhere they’d be more effective”) are a frequent refrain when a campaign starts to make serious progress. Sometimes it is naieve but honestly believed. In other cases it is disingenuous.

In this case, some of the naieve critics wrongly imagine that the efficacy of the strategy depends upon the step by step arithmetic of money shifted, rather than (a) the social and psychological impact of undermining the social licence of fossil fuels, and (b) demonstrating the feasibility and popular mandate for a shift to clean energy. Others assume that those participating would want to participate in a hand-in-glove relationship with the oil industry, and be available to do so. Most of this category of critics are rationalistic ‘experts’ or academics who understand a lot about energy but little about politics or campaigns.

The disingenuous critics understand the strategy perfectly well but hope to disable it by discouraging its supporters, such as with this piece of propaganda in Forbes magazine.   Both lots should be watched but otherwise ignored.

Positive engagement with the fossil fuel industry will no doubt continue but the real opportunity for those companies to convert themselves into leaders in the new world of clean energy is long gone. They closed that window when they gave up their investments in renewables (eg Shell in 2009, BP in 2011-13). Their next big negotiation will be over the terms of their own demise.

So the time to talk to the fossil fuel industry will return but only once governments clearly show that they have entered the end game, and organise some sort of negotiation to progressively close down fossil fuels, including action to put geological carbon resources ‘beyond use’, as they say in arms talks. That’s something politicians really are needed for, and if they aren’t up to the job, we’ll have to find another way.

Chris Rose 2 August 2015 chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

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