• Welcome to the System Change Not Climate Change Community Forum. The Forum's goal is to promote exchange of information, discussion, and debate among ecosocialists and other activists who share our belief that capitalism is driving climate change and that a radical international grassroots movement can stop it.

Divestment: What is it good for?

Ted F

Here is a discussion of divestment campaigns that broke out on the listserv and has been moved to the forum so that more can join in. The discussion began with posting of an article by Bill McKibben:

Cashing Out From the Climate Casino


December 15, 2017

It’s hard to be optimistic about climate action, not in a week when federal scientists reported that “the Arctic shows no sign of returning” to the “reliably frozen region of recent past decades.” Not in a month when California’s wildfires show every sign of burning straight through Christmas. And not in a moment when the federal government keeps scrubbing basic climate information from its websites.

But something big is starting to shift. After years of effort from activists, there are signs that the world’s financial community is finally rousing itself in the fight against global warming. A foretaste came last month when Norway’s sovereign wealth fund — the world’s biggest — said that it is considering divestment from holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The Norwegians are far from the first to consider such a move (investors controlling more than $5 trillion in assets have committed to dropping all or some of their fossil fuels stocks) but they are the biggest. And since their fund had been built on the revenues from North Sea oil it was especially significant. It was as if they were preparing to cash in their chips from the hydrocarbon casino and heading out to look for a new game.
Then, in short order this week:

• The European insurance giant Axa announced it would divest itself of more than $825 million in investments in oil production and pipelines in the tar sands of Canada for both ethical and business reasons. The planet could see temperature increases as high as four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), noted Thomas Buberl, the company’s chief executive, a development he called “not sustainable and therefore also not insurable.” He added, “As the father of two children, I really want to do the most I can with the company I am leading” to slow the rate of planetary destruction.

• Exxon Mobil threw in the towel and said it would begin performing assessments of how climate policy will affect its various ventures, after about 62 percent of its shareholders voted in May to demand such action. This capitulation to activist investors will make it ever harder to justify a business model of burning more carbon, and the idea is spreading: The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said this week that 237 companies with a market capitalization of more than $6 trillion, including 20 major global banks, were now backing climate-related disclosure schemes.

• And most important, the World Bank on Tuesday said it would by 2019 end all financial support for oil and gas exploration (it had earlier made the same pledge about coal) because of the simple facts of a “rapidly changing world.” “It’s hard to overstate the significance” of the World Bank’s decision, Stephen Kretzmann, a veteran campaigner with the group Oil Change International, told The Guardian, adding, “It is time for all of the institutions, countries, investors and individuals who are still in the Paris agreement to stop funding fossils.”

Such a total ban won’t happen all at once, of course. Western finance remains enmeshed with the fossil fuel industry — environmental groups are mounting a last-ditch effort this week, for instance, to persuade several big banks to stop financing the Keystone XL pipeline by reminding them that top climate scientists say that the pipeline represents a deep and direct threat to our climate future.

Banks tell themselves this is “business as usual,” and indeed for a very long time lending to the gas and oil industry was normal and routine. But on a planet with a melted Arctic and a burning California, it’s become the single most dangerous and reckless way to deploy money.

Sometimes it takes years of hard work for this kind of activism to pay off. Mr. Kretzmann and his colleagues at Oil Change International have been working on World Bank financing for a decade. Indigenous campaigners in Canada have been attacking the financial roots of the tar sands for at least as long. The nonstop divestment campaigning of recent years has built enormous political pressure for change. And according to one recent study, divestment announcements may have caused at least short-term damage to the share prices of fossil fuel companies.

That pressure will continue. Groups like Mazaska Talks are running large consumer campaigns trying to force banks to recognize their responsibility or face boycotts.

Divestment is becoming an increasingly important force in local politics: New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James, last week called on the city’s pension funds to divest from fossil fuels before more climate damage is done. City treasuries have begun to pull billions from banks like Wells Fargo that underwrite projects like the Dakota Access pipeline.

It’s true that no environmental action is possible in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s also true that congresses and parliaments are not the only halls of power. Finance, not politics, may turn out to be the soft underbelly of the climate monster.

Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org who teaches environmental studies at Middlebury College, is the author, most recently, of “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.”

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.


On Saturday, 12/16/17, Matthew Adams wrote:

It appears Bill McKibben is jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. In this opinion piece from the NYT he expresses a lack of faith in governments (for now?) but instead puts hope in corporations. I thought he was only making the case for divestment, but apparently I can also be an activist investor like the owners of Exxon Mobil who have voted for an "assessment of how climate policy will affect its various ventures." I guess that's the kind of nonsense you have to write to be palatable on the pages of the New York Times.

My question is, how long must we wait before we can say the effort to address climate change within the rules of capitalism has run its course?



On Saturday, December 16, 2017 8:30 AM, Richard Smith wrote:


You’re right. It’s high time the enviro movement comes to grips with fundamentals. McKibben’s self-congratulation is premature. The reality is that his fossil fuel divestment campaign has completely failed in its intended objective: For all the divestments and all the activist energy poured into divestment campaigns over the past decade or so, fossil fuel consumption is at an all time high and on course to rise much higher as oil companies drill into the farthest corners of the earth. Coal consumption is decreasing here and there. But oil and “clean” natural gas production is soaring, far faster than renewables like solar, wind, and water. Fossil fuels still produce more than 80% of U.S. energy (Fossil fuels still dominate U.S. energy consumption despite recent market share decline - Today in Energy - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)) The EIA, BP and other studies all project that global fossil fuel consumption is going grow by 40% or so in the next few decades as more developing countries develop and get rich enough for their peoples to buy iPhones, SUVs, condominiums, jet vacations, and more.

Environmentalists like Bill McKibben complain mightily about fossil fuel investments but I never hear them complaining about the unsustainable over-consumption of fossil fuels squandered in our capitalist-consumerist lifestyle — consumed by the the obese and overaccessorized Suburbans, Escalades, Denalis, Ticonderogas and Teslas, the humongous McMansions and condos, repetitive consumption of disposable clothes, furniture, electric gadgets, throw-away plastic junk, overprocessed industrial food, Cheap-O-Air flights to everywhere, the eleven percent of the GDP wasted in waging imperial wars, and so on. Most of what we produce and consume is just a total waste, completely unnecessary and certainly unsustainable. I just don’t see how the evironmental movement is ever going to force actual reductions in fossil fuel consumption unless it mounts a frontal attack our obscene and unsustainable levels of resource consumption, beginning with fossil fuels — and, no less important, show people how we can create a truly sustainable economy that minimizes instead of maximizes resource consumption.



On Saturday, December 16, 2017 9:45 AM, Patrick Bond wrote:

Hi comrades,

These critiques of fossil divestment seem sound in the broadest terms ("it's not working," "it's framed in ways that are too tame and coopted"), yet they're not entirely satisfying.

Taking divestment on its own terms - i.e., a limited hit against individual target capitalists within the context of an ever more dangerously financialized capitalism - would require us to consider the other main criterion: consciousness-raising. Hasn't that been a major function of fossil divestment, as it is for any campaign aiming at delegitimizing the opponent?

I've been involved in three other divestment campaigns:

  • against South African racial apartheid, which was won in 1994 after financial sanctions catalyzed in part by BDS advocacy hit Pretoria hard in 1985 (after a quarter-century of build-up BDS work);
  • the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which began in 2000 and faltered in 2003 after scaring the Bank once the San Francisco city council unanimously divested, followed by a few other cities; and
  • a pro-Palestine BDS movement which began in 2005 and has recently frightened the Israeli authorities to the extent that it is criminalized and if you're a visitor to Palestine, you get turned away from the Tel Aviv airport if you have a BDS record.
In each case, social mobilizations and movement-building were vital to whatever success was achieved. So I think you'd want to do a fair assessment of whether Bill McKibben is back-slapping too much (to be fair, on enemy territory in the NYT) by not just looking at the $6 trillion in funds removed from one facet of eco-catastrophic investment markets, which is itself a huge accomplishment. But look also at how many people have been educated and organized in campuses, churches, municipalities, trade unions and other sites of struggle.

As another example of ways fossil divestment muscle can help related causes, the DAPL campaign now advocates pipeline-financing bank boycotts more than ever, and that seems to also bring climate change back onto that struggle's front burner for solidarity activists across the US and Europe.

But also from the standpoint of critical analysis, don't you think we all need to follow the money more carefully, when attacking the fossil fuel industry as well as so many other eco-socially-destructive corporate enemies?

I was reminded of that this week upon hearing of the death of one of our main TNC enemies here in South Africa, Lonmin (responsible for the 2012 Marikana Massacre of 34 wildcat strikers). There were three aspects of finance involving Lonmin that I've been thinking about recently: micro, development and corporate. They all come together if we think of these investors - especially short-termist stock market speculators as well as hucksters like the World Bank's IFC, not to mention microfinance predators - as potential secondary targets.

In the U.S., the state's extremist RICO legislation - dating from the McCarthy era - prevents full-fledged secondary boycotts (i.e., a target company's banker or investor or supplier or customer). Nevertheless, our own labor activists - who are desperate to avoid the firing of 38% of Lonmin's workers in the next three years - will probably need to think through how to wrest corporate financial control from shareholders if they are to save platinum. (This sector could well be useful if hydrogen fuel cells play any role a future society - which I'd value your opinions on as I'm torn.) Nationalization is the logical route, but the main forces lined up against that are obviously the banking sector's still apparently impotent police: Standard&Poors, Fitch and Moody's.

And these vulnerable mineworkers are definitely not over-consumers of the Global North type Richard observes; they gross around $1000/month and most have two households to support due to the durability of migrant labor. Comrades here at the AIDC lefty institute in Cape Town are mulling over how Climate Jobs campaigns can undo so much bad Minerals-Energy Complex investment, and give workers a good wage and benefits: About - AIDC | Alternative Information & Development Centre

But meantime, it will really help to have a better handle on finance as a combination of power and vulnerability. So that would be the nuance I'd like to see added to this conversation, before writing off all the divestment efforts as futile.

PS, here's what I'm driving at (see attached)

On 2017/12/16 02:48 PM, Richard Smith wrote:

Patrick makes some good points: First, other boycott and divestment campaigns have won important gains/victories, most notably the South African boycott campaign against the apartheid government, which I myself worked on for years in the 1970s when I was at UCLA. I’m not opposed to BDS campaigns in general. I strongly support the current campaign to boycott and divest from anything to do with Israel. I’m just saying that if the intent of the fossil fuel divestment campaign in the U.S. was to reduce fossil fuel production/consumption, it has failed, shows little prospect of success, and I think we need a different approach. Secondly, Patrick correctly says that mobilizing people around fossil fuel divestment has raised consciousness of students, workers and others. Yes, but not as much as it could, because divestment per se does not challenge consumption per se. Scientists tell us we face a climate emergency. They say we need an emergency response. In this situation, divestment is a low-hanging fruit that does not really address the dire threat we face. As I’ve argued elsewhere, given the abject failure of all efforts to meaningfully “green” capitalism, the only option we have left now is to impose an emergency shutdown of polluting industries. That’s an extreme solution, to be sure, and one that no workers, unions, capitalists or governments want to hear out there in public. But we don’t have more decades to waste in efforts that are useless and beside the point. We need to be talking about a real emergency response even if that’s unpopular and doesn’t get us op-ed space in the New York Times.

Indeed, this fall the Chinese government drew the same conclusion and ordered a six-month shutdown of factories, smelting operations, mines, cement plants, steel mills around Beijing in a last-ditch effort to prevent recurrence of the “airpocalypses” that have smothered Beijing and north China in recent years. Of course, they can’t keep them offline for long if they also want to enforce their plans to Make China Great Again, to make it the world’s top manufacturer, the world’s top economy, and pave their Silk Road across Asia to Europe. But at least they recognized that when all is said and done, there’s no other solution.

My concern is that we’re wasting our breath with divestment. While we’ve got the students' and workers’ attention, why not pitch directly for more radical campaigns to reduce fossil fuel production/consumption? How about a campaign to reduce air travel: Air travel is the fastest-growing source of fossil fuel emissions. And most travel is trivial, completely unnecessary. We should ration it. George Monbiot, who’s hardly an anti-capitalist, has called for grounding air fleets, because there's just no other solution. How about a campaign to ban cruise ships? A single large cruise ship puts out more pollution, and far worse pollution, than five million cars. Imagine. Did you know that? I sure didn’t till I read the article below in the Guardian. (Each gallon of bunker fuel contains 3,500 times more sulphur than diesel for cars and trucks, among other toxic chemicals). Cruise ships are the fastest growing segment of the tourist industry. But there are no battery powered cruise ships on any naval architect’s drawing board. The only solution to their pollution is to just ban them . Period. (The world's largest cruise ship and its supersized pollution problem). I’ll be happy to go leaflet the cruise ship docks on Manhattan’s west side. How about a campaign to ban disposable iPhones — with dozens of protestors out front of iPhone stores demanding that Apple stop all this toxic waste and the insane 24/7 exploitation of migrant workers to produce all these disposalble phones, and instead, make phones that are upgradable, a durable appliance. Foxxcon iSlaves in Hong Kong are organizing around this very issue among others: Jack Linchuan Qiu, Goodbye iSlave (U. Illinois Press 2016) and other sources. I bet we could get not a few pissed off Apple customers, tired of being forced to toss their perfectly good iPhone 5 because Apple won’t supply upgrades any more, to sign our petitions. How about a ban on SUVs? And so on. It seems to me that there are any number of campaigns we could think of that directly attack overconsumption of fossil fuels, that challenge the nature of our unsustainable repetitive-consumption economy, and get people to think beyond their investment portfolios.



Ted F

Divestment: What is it good for? - Part 2

On Saturday, December 16, 2017 4:52 PM, Patrick Bond wrote:

Thanks Richard,

Yes, with you on divestment and limitations of low-hanging fruit; Chinese sub-imperialist environmentalism; air travel and maritime emissions; and consumption norms.

So, what kinds of campaigns are you seeing in these areas which have solid politics behind them; where are the initiatives you'd like to see amplified?

  • On the latter, for example, the Story of Stuff film series just turned ten years old, with many tens of millions of views (and the Story of Cap and Trade is a tough critique of green capitalism, especially important in September when Jerry Brown tries to take credit for leading on climate policy).
  • On maritime emissions, in South Africa we've been trying to hold the line - with a climate narrative in this short film - in South Durban, the African continent's largest container port, but the site of a proposed $25 bn expansion.
  • Last year we combined Durban with Rio and Hong Kong comrades to look at how deglobalisation processes and labor-community resistance in these port struggles can be better fused.
  • On China's emissions, this is your turf as much as anyone's, but in terms of movement-building, we've had brics-from-below and Globalization Monitor One Belt One Road critiques to generate solidarity (in Hong Kong a few months ago) and again, find the 'centrifugal' character of world capitalism a compelling entry point, especially given the BRICS' collaboration with Obama and the EU to cook the climate. And the BRICS heads of state come to Joburg in September so we'll have an excellent counter-summit. All this involves a bit of air travel, yup.

On Sunday, December 17, 2017 10:04 AM, John Foran wrote:

Hi comrades,

I feel we are wasting our time dismissively criticizing Bill McKibben and 350's politics (not one and the same thing, of course, as I am myself part of 350) rather than trying to build bridges with the large numbers of people whom the fossil fuel divestment movement has put on the path of climate justice politics.

So I am very much with Patrick's assessment below. As someone who teaches in a university, and works with, studies, and learns from the global youth climate justice movement and young people in general, I can tell you that this generation of activists is something like we have not seen in a very long time, that they are still very much in motion in terms of their activism, analysis, and potential to radically transform our world, and that we should not dismiss the single most impressive campaign in the United States to mobilize young people in quite some time (one very much in line with Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, the Fight for 15, the Dreamers, and much else we should align ourselves with).

It's just too easy and ultimately I think unhelpful to only critique, to call for something better without any ideas on how to achieve it, to ask why aren't more people following our own unquestioningly correct politics, to send us back to the same articles again and again (sorry, Dennis).

*We* need to do better, not someone else. We need new ideas. We need to become better listeners. And everyone who is out there trying to do the same is better viewed as an ally than as part of the problem.

The problem is a lot bigger than any of us, and we are going to have to become a lot bigger to match it.

By the way, I am going to set up a new organization for those who wish 350 was more radical: 349.org

Just kidding! Let's keep a sense of humor in this struggle, friends.


On December 17, 2017 11:28 AM, Richard Smith wrote


I’m all for working with 350 comrades. We’ve worked with 350.org since we formed in 2103, and collegially I would add. I’m only criticizing McKibben’s self-congratulations about building a great big divestment campaign as premature because, for all of that, divestment has not cut fossil fuel consumption one iota. So yes, I agree, we need new and better ideas for strategy and campaigns because we don’t have many more decades to waste in failed campaigns that are beside the point. Let’s take suggestions.


On Sunday, December 17, 2017 11:34 AM, Kamran Nayeri wrote:

My take on the divestment campaigns

I agree with both Patrick and John F. that we must orient ourselves to the climate justice movement as it exists. A significant part of it is the divestment campaign.

But what does this orientation consists of? In my own experience with our Sonoma County 350.org where I was co-opted into its "administrative committee" (the leadership), there was a subgroup working on divestment campaign targeting CalPERS, that manages the largest public employees pension fund in the U.S. The campaign was really the turf of one retired teacher who had a few volunteers from time to time. The campaign consisted in tabling a few times a year at various public venues and to take a carload of people to Sacramento (the seat of the State of California government) to hold a silent protest of a half-dozen people in the back of the room (if that was possible) or in front of the building. I know there are larger and more active divestment campaigns elsewhere in the U.S. But their political character is similar (I will get back to this in a moment).

Sonoma County 350.org was and remains in crisis because it has no strategy for fighting climate change. The leadership body from which I resigned in September 1016 because it began supporting the Clinton campaign without any discussion, had no vision of orienting to the working people and had no interest to discuss root-causes of climate change (beyond the mantra that climate change is caused by the fossil fuel industry). It has disintegrated into an "organization' where each "leader" paddled her own interest (e.g. the key leader's interest was regenerative agriculture as the "strategy to fight climate change).

Of course, the Sonoma County group is not the prototype of all other 350.org groups or other climate justice groups. But I doubt it if by-and-large groups of various degrees of political awareness differ (1) in their questioning of the roots of the climate crisis, (2) of having an orientation toward the working people independent of the Democratic party or at least its "climate-friendly" wing. If they did climate stars like Bill McKibben would have been outflanked from the left (that is what The Climate Mobilization is trying to do with little success).

I realize that conditions are different in other countries such as South Africa. But the principles I outline must by and large apply.

What should we do? Of course, we must orient ourselves to the present movement as it exists. What can we bring to the movement? To be the best builders of independent mass political action by arguing for an orientation away from appealing to "good politicians" or against "bad politicians" to working with the working people's movements (some of which John listed) and urge an ongoing discussion of the root-causes of the crisis (it is a social and planetary crisis, not just a climate crisis), an action program that would meet the minimum requirement for stopping the climate crisis, and strategy and tactics that help build an indpendent, self-reiliant movement of working people.

Of course, my argument above is based on the claim the that we are facing and anthropocentric capitalist crisis. I have detailed my case in a number of essays (see, here, and here, for two of them).

With warm regards,


On Sunday, December 17, 2017 1:26 PM, Matthew Andrews wrote:

Patrick and Richard have some exciting ideas for campaigns. Because of the amount of work involved for any campaign, the challenge is getting local activists to commit to it and coordinate with others.

I have to admit, I'm not up to date even on climate groups in my area. A friend of mine that I didn't even know was political, (I know him from my gym!) sent out a fundraiser for The Climate Mobilization. I hadn't heard of it before. There's also a new group of young folks that seem direct action / climate justice oriented called Sunrise Movement.

My movement building work in 2017 was mostly around immigrant rights in the Boston May Day Coalition. I'm hoping we will expand our focus to address the root causes of the migration crisis - including climate change.

I think campaigns that intersect with other issues have the most potential for popular support. I've been surprised by mainstream groups (like the PIRGs) getting behind fee and rebate programs. While it's still trying to work within a market system, I like the re-distributive aspect. It may be a first step toward the Universal Basic Income.

I'll give an even better example. Why aren't climate groups doing more for public transportation? It's hard to think of anything more wasteful than a traffic jam, not only in terms of carbon, but time out of the lives of millions of working people! Better public transportation would mean more union jobs, less carbon emissions, and a less stressful commute for the average worker. It also points to the need for planned systemic solutions.


On Sunday, December 17, 2017 1:34 PM, Ted Franklin wrote:

A few comments:

One front that has emerged in our ongoing struggle to keep a $250 million coal terminal from being constructed in Oakland is our campaign to prevent investment in the terminal. I do not know how common the circumstances we confront are, but the way this campaign is evolving has some interesting implications for developing a specifically anti-capitalist thrust to campaigns around fossil-fuel investment. A Bank of Montreal investment banker has masterminded a funding scheme for the terminal that would raise $50 million from the State of Utah (a perverted use of money from a federal fund that is supposed to help mitigate the impacts on local communities of mining on federal lands within their boundaries) and $200 million from unrated debt peddled to pension funds. Our initial concept was to try to stop the pension funds from investing, but we have no way of identifying which specific pension funds will be targeted by the Bank of Montreal. But the Bank of Montreal itself is a very specific target. We are preparing to organize a campaign against the Bank itself unless the Bank abandons efforts to raise funds for the project. In some ways, this is similar to efforts that have been taken to try to disrupt the funding of DAPL by targeting banks and we’ve done some of that here in the Bay Area. I think we have a greater shot at getting the Bank to publicly abandon the project because of (1) coal’s status as the most disfavored fossil fuel; (2) the Bank’s posturing as an environmentally committed capitalist entity (having signed on to the Equator Principles); (3) the powerful local alliance of labor, faith, environmental, and community organizations that we have built in Oakland; and (4) the increasingly shaky finances of the coal company that is the Bank’s partner in this scheme. If Trump’s plan for infrastructure development goes anywhere, I suspect it will include many projects to expand fossil-fuel consumption. If we can’t organize to stop the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, we can forget about deindustrializing or organizing to stop air travel and cruise ships.

On another note: As ecosocialist friends in 350 Bay Area have explained to me, 350.org has no chapters. It is an NGO with offices around the country. 350.org does not control who uses 350 in their name. 350 Bay Area is a more radical organization than 350.org and has no institutional relationship whatsoever with 350.org. Unlike DSA or the National Lawyers Guild, 350.org holds no national conventions where accredited delegates from local chapters vote on direction of the national organization or elect the national leadership. I would highly recommend that we recognize the complexities. Although I appreciate that Kamran has relevant concrete experience with a 350-branded group in Sonoma County behind his analysis, I think his reference to 350.org groups perpetuates a misunderstanding of the 350 world. If we are going to relate to people who are attracted to 350 groups, we need to have an understanding of the fluidity of these groups and grasp the fact that younger activists will grow in the struggle and may push their 350 groups (not 350.org!) in more radical directions or move on, lessons learned, if the 350 groups prove inadequate to their growing understanding of what it will take to change the world. Without a dialectical view of how movements, organizations, and individual people develop, we can become uncomfortably similar to those freaks hawking their ultraleft newspapers on the fringes of real activity. I’m not trying to poke anyone here in the eye. This is the kind of healthy discussion that gets us all thinking.


On Sunday, December 17, 2017 1:37 PM, Richard Smith wrote:

I agree Matt, achieving more public transit would 1) reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions, 2) prompt people to think of collective solutions (instead of individual, let alone investment portfolio) solutions, 3) give us a better mode of living. Europeans collectively produce half the emissions that Americans do and much of this is due to their excellent and integrated systems of public transportation, and 4) and it’s a positive change to look forward to, nothing negative or “sacrificial” about it.


On Monday, December 18, 2017 8:32 AM, Eugene Coyle wrote:

Richard Smith is clearly right that the focus must be on reducing fossil fuel consumption, and that the divestment campaign is, as he put it, “beside the point."

This thread started with Matthew Andrews calling attention to McKibben’s Op-Ed in the NYT extolling divestment from fossil fuels. But divestment never promised much power over oil and coal companies and their production. It couldn’t.

McKibben and Patrick Bond liken the divestment campaign to the apartheid fight in South Africa. The analogy fails for several reasons. The South Africa campaign threatened the whole economy and thus enlisted businesses in changing the policy under attack. A better analogy is with the War on Drugs.

The war on drugs focuses mainly on interdicting supply from reaching the market but has failed to do that. The divestment campaign also aims to interdict supply from reaching the market, and fossil fuels from ever leaving the underground. For the War on Drugs the government deploys the Border Patrol, the military and the DEA and supports aerial spraying in Latin America. The military and allies try to stop poppy farming in Afghanistan. We have the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy patrolling the high seas, and drug squads in the major cities raiding and infiltrating drug dealers. Regular police forces operating almost everywhere have added millions to the prison population.

Trying to stop the supply of drugs – – an illegal substance – – has failed. That is widely recognized. Trying to stop the supply of perfectly legal fossil fuels will fail as well. The point is that only a successful reduction in demand will bring success for the slogan “Leave the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole.” On this point I emphatically agree with Richard Smith.

The supply of oil cannot be interdicted because not only the oil companies but other businesses and the people, worried about economic growth and getting or keeping a job and a better life for their kids, all need (at present) fossil fuels. Those clinging to precarious jobs, or with no job at all, and businesses of all types and sizes will support fossil fuel production unless they can feed and shelter families another way. They believe, incorrectly, that economic growth will lead to jobs. The SCNCC campaign needs to convert most of them to allies by offering something, not merely denying things. SCNCC must offer a powerful alternative to cut the demand for energy. There is one.

Ten years ago McKibben’s book Deep Economy, in the chapter “After Growth” McKibben laid out the argument for ending the obsession with growing the economy. With respect to income distribution he says “I agree with the argument for fairness, that we should distribute wealth more equitably both here and around the globe.”

But then he gets things exactly wrong:

“(In fact, there's persuasive evidence [there is not] that if all you cared about was growth, the best way to speed it up would be to redistribute income more fairly.)” ...

“But I'm not going to tarry long here, because I also think that a program of redistribution, however wise or moral, will do relatively little to deal with the even more fundamental, and much less discussed, problems that a growth-centered, efficiency-obsessed economy faces. It's to those problems, and to the physical world, that we now turn.”

So much for a Just Transition and Black Lives Matter and the Women’s movement for equal pay.

There’s evidence that McKibben still holds similar views. In the NY Review of Books, reviewing Pope Francis’ important encyclical on global warming and the Pope’s emphasis on income redistribution, McKibben patted the Pope on the head and went full bore on new technology.


On Monday, December 18, 2017 8:37 AM, David Klein wrote:

Can anyone explain why or how banks divesting from fossil fuels will decrease emissions? Don't the massive energy corporations like Exxon already have enough capital themselves to keep operations going indefinitely? How are these bank divestments actually going to do anything? Is there any concrete evidence that this kind of activism is working? So far, the reality is that as divestments are increasing, emissions are skyrocketing.


Last edited:

Ted F

No one makes that claim. We may disagree with strategies that are intended to create social and political isolation for bad actors, raise consciousness of issues, etc., but the strategies are not based on mechanical theories that divestment directly interferes with fossil fuel industries. On the other hand, I think No Coal in Oakland's efforts described in my earlier post to prevent investment in a specific project could have a direct impact and have some specifically anti-capitalist content that makes them more interesting than divestment campaigns. In this regard, I would suggest that efforts to persuade pension funds and endowments to avoid unrated private debt offerings that would fund construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure are not only worthwhile but strategically useful. It is far more meaningful to mess with the funding of specific projects than to campaign for institutions to sell off stock in order to express symbolic disapproval.

David J

I have worked with a student group trying to get our local university to divest; both occupying university buildings and working to sharpen their critique of capitalism through respectful dialogue ( sit-ins are a perfect opportunity!). Which is why I think John Foran's binary of EITHER support OR dismiss is problematic. I have also built a relationship with a local 350 group which very much follows the McKibben line and shies away from talk of capitalism. But I respectfully challenge their analysis and attempt to persuade them to adopt more systemic views. They're grown ups and at least as smart as I am and can defend their points. BTW, the average age is 50+ , which should tell them something.

I also think it is problematic, given our time frame, if folks are adopting a dead-end strategy ( I'm not saying divestment is such) and those with more radical solutions simply go along for another decade because we don't wish to antagonize possible allies. And yes, we can argue persuasively that we have solutions even if we don't know how to mobilize for the change needed. As Ted says above, "these groups are fluid " and a big part of our task is to respectfully influence their shape. I think Standing Rock is a good example; lots of people heard a systemic critique because Indian Environmental Network was willing to engage with them, discuss, debate, argue, but all in solidarity.

I do also like the idea of a campaign targeting cruise ships,

Steve Ongerth

Here follows some counterweight to the overwhelmingly negative and dismissive (in my opinion) opinions about Divestment and Bill McKibben (which are not necessarily mutually inclusive)...

Steve Ongerth

How Bill McKibben’s radical idea of fossil-fuel divestment transformed the climate debate:

How Bill McKibben's radical idea of fossil-fuel divestment transformed the climate debate

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.”

With these words, environmental activist Bill McKibben launched a radical and moral broadside against the fossil-fuel industry and its contributions to climate change in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012.

In a coordinated move, the McKibben-founded climate advocacy group 350.org launched its Go Fossil Free: Divest from Fossil Fuels! Campaign with a stated goal to “revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry.” With the help of activist college students, the movement sought to stigmatize fossil fuel companies, restrict future cash flows and depress share prices by compelling universities to divest their holdings in these companies.

Now, five years later, the effort seems to some to have been a failure, at least by the financial measures they laid out. Only a limited number of institutions have divested their endowments, and the stocks of major fossil-fuel companies show little effect.

But in doing a network text analysis of news articles, we found that by other measures the effort has been a success. Exhibiting a phenomenon in the social sciences called the “radical flank effect,” McKibben and 350.org have dramatically altered the climate change debate in the United States. Their success on this dimension offers important insights relevant for all social activists to consider.

Parallel in Civil Rights movement
First introduced by sociologist Herbert Haines in 1984, the radical flank effect refers to the positive or negative effects that radical activists can have on more moderate ones in the same cause.

The negative radical flank effect creates a backlash from opposing groups. In such cases, all members of a movement – both moderate and radical – are viewed with the same critical lens. For example, some may think that all environmental groups should be judged by the tactics of those who spike trees to prevent logging or ram whaling ships.

Conversely, the positive radical flank effect is when members of a social movement are viewed in contrast to each other; extreme actions from some members make other organizations seem more palatable or reasonable.

Bill McKibben (on right) speaks at a 2015 event to pressure Harvard University to divest from its financial stakes in fossil fuel companies. 350.org, CC BY-NC-SA
Haines first studied this in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When Martin Luther King Jr. first began speaking his message, it was perceived as too radical for the majority of white America. But when Malcolm X entered the debate, he extended the radical flank and, as a result, made King’s message look moderate by comparison.

Russell Train, second administrator of the EPA, articulated the positive radical flank effect in the 1970s when he quipped, “Thank God for David Brower. He makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable.” Brower, the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, was a controversial figure who pushed the environmental movement to take more aggressive actions.

The radical flank effect and divestment
It was in 2012 that McKibben and 350.org staked the radical flank by mobilizing students to pressure their colleges or universities to liquidate their investments in fossil fuel companies.

This was a far more extreme position than was previously taken by activists in the climate change debate. Namely, where others argued for industry-wide controls on carbon without demonizing any particular industry, McKibben’s radical flank portrayed the fossil-fuel industry as a public enemy and called for its extermination.

The campaign’s goal was to stigmatize – and thereby harm – the value of fossil fuel companies. But in our study, we found the ultimate effect of their efforts was not so much financial as on the terms of the debate over climate change.

We used text analytics software to sift through 42,000 news articles about climate change between 2011 and 2015 and map the influence of the radical flank. In this analysis, we found that the divestment campaign expanded rapidly as a topic in worldwide media. In the process, it disrupted what had become a polarized debate and reframed the conflict by redrawing moral lines around acceptable behavior.

Our evidence suggests this shift enabled previously marginal policy ideas such as a carbon tax and carbon budget to gain greater traction in the debate. It also helped translate McKibben’s radical position into new issues like “stranded assets” and “unburnable carbon,” the idea that existing fossil fuel resources should remain in the ground.

Although these latter concepts are still radical in implication, they adopt the language of financial analysis and appeared in business journals like The Economist, Fortune and Bloomberg, which makes them more legitimate within business circles.

Thus, the battle cry of divestment became a call for prudent attention to financial risk. By being addressed in these financial publications, the carriers of the message shifted from grassroots activists to investors, insurance companies and even the Governor of the Bank of England.

The upshot
The radical flank effect and our findings offer some critical insights for social activists.

Social movements typically achieve influence by gaining attention from news media and gaining buy-in from critical supporters. A conventional approach might collapse these goals into a plan to directly challenge specific targets, as when a labor campaign elicits public support to unionize a workplace or an environmental campaign seeks to shut down a specific pipeline.

Instead, our analysis shows the value of distinguishing between challenging specific targets and changing the broader public discourse. Although the divestment campaign chose an objective that was largely impossible to fulfill, its tactics expanded the boundaries of the public debate and enhanced the viability of progressive issues. As such, the radical flank effects social change indirectly by creating opportunities for more moderate groups and issues to become more influential.

But, it is important to note that this works in some circumstances and not others. Radical positions can go so far that they have limited effects on the mainstream, which appears to be the case for Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. In our data, we found her more extreme calls to “shred capitalism” had a far more limited effect in the public debate.

Our study also suggests that indirect attempts to shift the debate may be especially useful in highly polarized issues like U.S. climate politics. In these conditions, direct challenges are likely to meet unyielding resistance, while a more indirect route may create space for incumbents, such as established corporations, opinion leaders and politicians, to positively re-evaluate climate activist positions.

Steve Ongerth

The World Bank just drove another nail in the coffin of oil and gas -

The World Bank just drove another nail in the coffin of oil and gas - Oil Change International

The World Bank just shook the world of energy finance to its foundations. On December 12, at the One Planet Summit in Paris, the world’s most high-profile public bank said they would no longer finance oil and gas extraction after 2019. This move made headlines around the world, and it was the direct result of sustained pressure from activists and communities fighting to end public finance for fossil fuels.

The announcement is a big deal for three main reasons:

  • No other public finance institution has this kind of commitment on their books, and many will follow the World Bank’s lead. Other financial institutions look to the World Bank Group as a standard-setter, and this precedent-setting move by one of the world’s most prominent public institutions will create a major ripple effect.When the World Bank Group established a policy to restrict coal financing in 2013, dozens of other institutions – public and private – piled on to restrict coal finance over the next couple of years. We can expect a similar trend with this commitment (but we’ll need to keep pushing to make it happen).
  • The World Bank’s upstream oil and gas finance isn’t just any finance. The money that the World Bank Group provides is concessional – it is provided at terms that are more generous than market terms. An example of this would be a loan at lower interest than would otherwise be available on the market.That means each dollar of World Bank finance currently going into oil and gas catalyzes many more, and that many projects that get World Bank finance would never go ahead without it. So, the finance that will shift away from oil and gas as a result of this announcement really matters, and will have an even larger effect than the numbers might suggest.
  • This is a serious amount of money. Our Shift the Subsidies database shows that the World Bank Group directly financed an average of over $1 billion per year in exploration and production activity between 2014 and 2016. It’s possible this announcement could affect far more finance than that, if it is applied to all fossil fuel infrastructure that enables upstream oil and gas development.
In short, this is a huge step, and it shows incredible climate leadership by the World Bank Group. That said, there’s still much more to do.

There’s still a significant amount of other fossil fuel finance at the World Bank Group that will need to be addressed, including ongoing indirect support for coal through financial intermediaries and development policy finance, as well as other oil and gas finance. Furthermore, the new oil and gas finance restrictions will require strict implementation. And, crucially, other government-backed institutions are still pumping tens of billions of public dollars into oil, gas, and coal each year.

This week’s win at the World Bank Group is something that Oil Change International has been working toward for years, alongside many other organizations and frontline communities. In fact, we highlighted the damage caused by World Bank financing for oil and gas in a briefing just months ago in 2017, another one earlier in 2017, one from 2016, one from 2015, one from 2014, one from 2013, one from 2011, one from 2010, one from 2008…and, yes, one from way back in 2005 (and this isn’t even an exhaustive list!).

Some outlets have incorrectly reported that the World Bank Group will eliminate only their finance for fossil fuel exploration, but it’s even bigger than that: the World Bank described it as a commitment to end “upstream oil and gas finance,” which means they’re planning to phase out all of their extraction-related finance. If this same provision were applied across all multilateral development banks and G20 public finance institutions, it would result in tens of billions of dollars per year in concessional finance moving out of oil and gas.

The World Bank Group also made additional exciting commitments, including applying a shadow carbon price in their investment decision-making, calculating and disclosing their greenhouse emissions, ramping up their Climate Change Action Plan’s ambition in 2020, and scaling up their green finance.

And they weren’t the only ones taking action at the One Planet Summit: Insurance and investment giant AXA announced they will no longer invest in or provide insurance for companies substantially involved in coal or in Canada’s dirty tar sands, showing that both private and public finance providers are united in their shift away from fossil fuels. It’s worth celebrating these important victories, even as we recognize the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

The World Bank Group’s announcement won’t shift the hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into oil and gas capital expenditure overnight. But over time, as the world increasingly realizes that fossil fuel expansion has no place in a world where we plan for success in addressing climate change, we can expect other financial institutions – both public and private – to follow their lead. The global community of people fighting to end government handouts to the fossil fuel industry will make sure of it.

Steve Ongerth

Some additional reflections, to Richard, specifically, the divestment movement is only a few years old and has only really picked up steam in the past three years. Many of the "soaring" emissions are the result of projects that were approved over the past two decades or so (yes, this is the same point I made in response to Barry Saxifrage's arguments some months back). As such, permitting processes, environmental reviews (where they exist), overcoming legal challenges, securing financing, etc take much time, so the divestment that is occurring now will become much more apparent in the next few years (see, especially, the Oil Change International article above).

Regardless of Bill McKibben's views, his views are his own and not the amalgamation of the rank and file activists who compose the vast and sprawling divestment movement, many of whom engage in other strategies and tactics, including some which I'm sure many of us would describe as "ecosocialist".

On the matter of proposing radical reductions, etc., I don't disagree, fundamentally, but we'd need to build the organization necessary to make this happen. I suspect that many of the individuals involved in the Divestment campaign(s) would be sympathetic to the ideas, but we'll get nowhere being sneeringly dismissive of their efforts, which many of the comments above will be read, whether they're intended that way or not.

As for calling for more public transit (and remaking human society so that personal automobile use is minimized as much as possible and replaced with public transit, biking, walking (and dare I say horses?), I support this (as a transit worker). I will post an announcement from Labor Network for Sustainability in the Labor forum about this very idea.
I've always felt that the attraction of this particular divestment campaign is that it gives people the feeling that they're doing something without really having to change their own lives or implore others to change theirs. It's mostly a feel-good exercise, like buying green products at the store and hope by doing so you're going to save the world. The difficulty then is to come up with campaigns that actually do aim at reducing fossil fuel consumption without appearing to be calling for palatable "sacrifices." In some cases such as pushing form more public transit or transitioning to renewable energy, we can avoid that problem because these are largely painless (oil workers can be reemployed in just transitions). But in other cases, say, calling for suppression of airline flights or big cars and SUVs, it becomes more problematical because this means closing or at least drastically retrenching very significant businesses and also "inconveniencing" people, depriving them (us) of conveniences like cheap air travel, humongous cars, that a couple of generations of Americans have taken for granted. But the problem is, energy generation accounts for only a quarter of so of emissions. The bulk of emissions come from transportation (vehicles, rail, air travel, shipping) which account for at least a quarter, then mining and manufacturing maybe 20 percent, agribusiness and deforestation account for the rest. Suppressing those emissions is going to cause some inconvenience. But a 4 degree warming is going to cause a lot more inconvenience. So we have to frame our message not so much in terms of sacrifice, though this is real and unavoidable, but in terms of the positive gains to be had, starting with the survival of our children, and going on to the better world we can build without the useless treadmill of overconsumption and the waste of time and lives that this costs. Etc. etc.

David J

To Steve's point about "sneeringly dismissive", I wonder if we can draw a comparison to the discourse around "white fragility", where white folk are sensitive to being made uncomfortable about talk of racism and bias? In this case we see "climate activist fragility", where any criticism of leaders or strategy makes us uncomfortable, offends our overly delicate sensibility. No one is saying McKibben hasn't done great, commendable work (though ascribing all climate progress to his radical flank is a stretch), only that he needs to take the next step.

As for "network text analysis" and radical flank theory, what would happen if Bill was to adopt the language of Naomi Klein? The point is; Bill has taken on a role as spokesperson and is able to define the problem and possible solutions. He has the nation's attention and can point to the fossil fuel industry or he can point to the capitalist system. He can point to a symptom or he can point to the disease, his call. He can call for divestment (which banks and insurance are doing anyway because of exposure to risk) or he can call for economic democracy. The struggle is on the terrain of language and Bill accepts markets and dismisses central planning (expressed in the Cross of the Moment film). I feel this is a critical mistake and will continue to criticize it.

As to Richard's point about positive framing, in the same film David Klein points out that given our current productive capacity society could provide healthcare, education through university, housing, nutritious food etc, (and I would add leisure time) through participatory planning and collective ownership. Bill could help us sell it if he (and others) would step up.