Collective action does effect social change
Jeff Jacoby claims that a major university’s ridding its portfolio of shares of fossil fuel companies “won’t have the slightest impact on the price of the companies’ stock” (“The shallow symbolism of fossil fuel divestment,” Ideas, March 1). His perspective denies the impact of collective action in effecting social change.
Over dinner recently, a world-traveling friend asked me, “Why take fewer plane flights? The plane is going anyway.” I countered with the obvious: If enough people fly less, airlines will shrink their flight schedules and perhaps even cancel certain routes. By the same logic, if fewer people buy the oversize cars and trucks that motor companies are pushing so aggressively, manufacturers will adjust their fleets to meet consumer demand for less-polluting vehicles, including those running on electricity.
The stock market follows similar rules. ExxonMobil’s stock price won’t be noticeably affected by Georgetown University’s divestment alone, but if multiple universities, pension funds, foundation portfolio managers, and other institutional investors take similar action, Exxon and other publicly traded fossil fuel companies will feel the heat. To salvage public and investor confidence, some of these companies are already making visible, if still minor, shifts toward more sustainable energy solutions.
To Jacoby, “modern life would . . . be unthinkable without fossil fuels.” To our warming planet, modern life may be unthinkable with them.
The writer, an environmental lawyer, writes about energy and environmental issues.
Nothing shallow about this concerted activism
Jeff Jacoby’s “The shallow symbolism of fossil fuel divestment” made me wonder what he would have written about similar forms of protest in different times.
After the Boston Tea Party, would he have bemoaned the needless waste of tea — because, after all, the East India Company could just send more boats? At the Montgomery bus boycott, would he have chided Rosa Parks for every time she had tolerated some form of discrimination elsewhere? And during the Vietnam War era, would he have told World War II veterans that they had no moral standing to protest the war, because after all, they had participated in one before?
True, fossil fuel divestment will not on its own make a significant dent in the profits of fossil fuel companies. And divestment activists cannot completely disentangle themselves from our fossil fuel-based economic reality. But in an era of truly shallow symbolism, in which many people use social media “likes” as their only form of political activity, these activists show up and make their voices heard. They are challenging our complacency about climate change and urgently calling on those in power to take action. I don’t see anything shallow about that.
Divestment is about moving moral compass point more than the stock price
I object to Jeff Jacoby’s dismissal of the fossil fuel divestment movement on campuses around the world. Divestment is an effective strategy to foster a transition away from fossil fuels.
The decision to divest from fossil fuels signifies values that pervade an institution’s policies. Divesting shows that universities value the research of their scientists over fossil fuel-funded propaganda dismissing that research, and it is almost always a leading indicator of a university’s willingness to prioritize carbon reduction measures in its operations.
Divestment also communicates a message to the broader community about the ethical dimensions of the climate crisis. When a respected university takes a public stand against fossil fuels, it erodes the social capital of the industry. It changes the conversation from a discussion of economics to a moral inquiry, appealing not to finances but to social responsibility (a point Jacoby himself acknowledges).
The increasing isolation of corporations in the fossil fuel business ultimately diminishes their political power at the federal level. Legislating against the interests of the oil and gas giants becomes less fraught as more institutions cease to be stakeholders and lend their social capital to this companies.
Jacoby’s reference to “some negative environmental impacts” of fossil fuels grossly understates the urgency of the situation and ignores the substantial equity and justice dimensions of the problem. Divestment is another lever that the climate movement must employ to address the climate crisis and move the world beyond the fossil fuel era.
Craig S. Altemose
The writer is the executive director of Better Future Project and its program Divest Ed, which supports student fossil fuel divestment campaigns nationwide.
Have you checked the energy sector’s market returns lately?
In his March 1 column, Jeff Jacoby misses a salient aspect of fossil fuel-free investing: returns. There is a compelling economic case to be made for divestment. The fossil fuel industry was the worst-performing sector in the United States last year — and this decade. Even if you brush off the powerful role the divestment movement has played in changing the conversation around fossil fuels, the irony of decrying it as a “self-righteous pose” and “moral preening,” while failing to address a fundamental component of investing, is not lost on readers.
Green Century Capital Management
Let fossil fuel firms tell you how divestment has affected them
Jeff Jacoby thinks that divestment has no material effect on fossil fuel companies. But those companies are beginning to disagree with him. In 2016, Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, said that the divestment movement had diminished its ability to raise money and was one factor underlying its plan at that time to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
More recently, we learned that the “divestment movement has been a key driver of the coal sector’s 60 percent de-rating over the past five years” — this nugget from Goldman Sachs. And in 2018, Shell bemoaned divestment, saying it is a “material risk” to its business. Jacoby ignores these developments, perhaps because they undermine his argument that divestment will have no effect.