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Can Divestment from Fossil Fuels Stop the Climate Crisis and Save the World?

Kamran Nayeri

In her essay, “How New York City Won Divestment from Fossil Fuels,” Nancy Romer (2018) celebrates the January 10th announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio that New York City will divest $5 billion of its pension funds presently invested in fossil fuels by recounting how the divestment coalition came together and worked for this end. Thus, Romer provides a service to all of us who want to study how the local climate justice movements operate in the United States today, in particular, one that is organized around fossil fuel divestment. The divestment movement is international in scope often originating by college students who demand their university divest from fossil fuel stocks and bonds. One of the first such attempts was by the students at the Australian National University who have begun their campaign in 2011 and despite some partial victories are still fighting for a fossil fuel free university. The New York City divestment campaign also has benefited by the participation of college students. A chronology of the City University of New York (CUNY) divestment campaign provided by Brian Tokar through the System Change not Climate Change (SCnCC) listserv is appended to Romer’s article republished on Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.

The purpose of this discussion article is to consider the divestment movement and its potentials and limits in the fight to stop and reverse the climate crisis. By it very focus, Romer’s article excludes this central consideration. Yet, her own discussion of the New York City experience points to the need for such discussion. My own argument will be colored by my own understanding of the root-causes of the crisis and what I think would be necessary if the humanity is to overcome it. I would be grateful for any critical response.

In Section 2, I briefly outline what I consider to be the root-causes of the climate crisis, and in the process of doing so, define its scope. In Section 3, I will argue the climate emergency is only one aspect of the social and planetary crisis caused by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. These sections are necessary for proper consideration of the efficacy of the divestment movement in addressing the climate crisis. In Section 4, I will take up the nuts and bolts of divestment policy and assess its efficacy to address the climate crisis. A much-neglected issue in the discussions of divestment is whether it is a strategy or merely a tactic serving a strategy. I will argue that it is a tactic without any clearly stated strategy. Also, I will take up the claim that the fossil fuel divestment campaign in the U.S. is modeled after the 1980s divestment campaign against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. I will show how the 1980s anti-apartheid divestment campaign was a tactic serving a revolutionary mass movement led by the African National Congress (ANC) that had a clear program and strategy and that the struggle against the Apartheid regime. But if divestment from fossil fuels is a tactic, what strategy does it serve? Oddly enough, the question of strategy is usually set aside in the climate justice movement. Thus, I follow Romer by taking Bill McKibben’s thinking about “strategy” because as she says, he and Naomi Klein have “popularized” the divestment idea in the U.S. and that NY350 and national 350.org have played a leadership role in the New York divestment campaign. In Section 5, I conclude with an overview of the climate crisis, the capitalist class response to it, the “strategy” of the mainstream climate justice organizations such as 350.org, and the role played by the grassroots movement activists like Romer to highlight how the ecological socialists can contribute to the climate justice movement. I hope this discussion will generate further consideration of what is needed to stop and reverse the climate emergency and the social and planetary crisis we face.

Can Divestment from Fossil Fuels Stop the Climate Crisis and Save the World?

David J

As far as de-funding fossil giants, finance is hardly a "soft" underbelly. As far as how to invest the energy of activists strategically, here in Montana students have tried unsuccessfully since 2012 to get UM regents to divest. NYCity is very "low-hanging fruit" compared to the high plains. The struggle has done little to heighten awareness in the general population and the failure has demoralized many young activists (who I worked with). Many others have been channeled into the "Non-Profit" complex and away from radicalism.

The main issue is one of perception. The polite, insider-game of endless discussions and lobbying sends a message that the "climate problem" is just another "progressive" issue, like unisex bathrooms. The activists face little personal risk, there is no great urgency. The analogy might be: your house is on fire and you call 911 and ask the dispatcher to have the fire department stop at the store on their way to pick you up a pack of cigarettes.

In the public's perception, there can't be much of an emergency if all these "concerned young people" are asking for is a chance to discuss finance. All this talk of "existential crisis" must be more hyperbole. The cynical, exhausted students I interact with want to take part in history, not some lame march with the same tired chants.