How Fossil Fuel Divestment Can Rewrite the Climate Narrative

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How Fossil Fuel Divestment Can Rewrite the Climate Narrative

"For 58 days, we sat at the doorstep of MIT’s president," writes Geoffrey Supran. This banner was from Day 28. (Photo: Fossil Free MIT/Facebook)

For 58 days, we sat at the doorstep of MIT’s president. 1,400 hours. Long enough to see the seasons change. Long enough to see atmospheric carbon dioxide levels creep quietly above 400 parts per million. We saw Halloween and Thanksgiving come and go. During finals week between exams and other end of semester obligations, still the scientists sat in. Believe me, between homework and lab work, sore backs and tired eyes, none of us wanted to be here, planted in the hallway outside President Reif’s office. But when MIT announced that it would not divest its $13.4 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, opting instead to “bring them closer,” we were left little choice.

“Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act,” Albert Einstein once said. I’ve been doing renewable energy research since I was 16 years old, and one thing I’ve learned during my PhD makes inaction impossible: The bottleneck to tackling climate change isn’t technology or policy know-how anymore. It's a lack of political will. The will to put a price on carbon. The will to end hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies and move them to renewables. The kind of will that put us on the moon.

Loosening the political bottleneck means understanding where it comes from. "Climate policy lost the plot," George Marshall concludes, because of a "cognitive error on a vast scale." The mistaken attempt to treat the climate challenge – a multivalent, irreversible, and systemic crisis – identically to how we dealt with the relatively manageable and reversible hazards of arms reduction, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The result has been a misframing of the climate crisis as a technocratic problem exclusively about greenhouse gases. And the consequences have been calamitous. Fossil fuel divestment aims to help reframe the climate narrative as a moral problem about fossil fuels, and evidence suggests it is working.

The climate conversation has been dominated by two narratives that are both inaccurate and unconstructive.

Misframing #1: Technocracy took the moral imperative – and the teeth – out of climate policy

For decades, the framing of climate change as a technocratic, “environmental issue” has excluded other narratives. Climate change has not been seen as an issue of health, social rights, or intergenerational justice, but of international protocols and 'normal politics'. A quixotic cling to rationalism. It’s all-too-easy for me to relate to this world view, because having been trained in the physical sciences, I used to share it. It’s how MIT warrants only taking climate actions if they’re met by unanimous campus approval. It’s how MIT can believe that through inside-politics it will convince Exxon, Shell, and the rest to leave trillions of dollars of profits underground, even as Exxon invokes its ties to MIT as reason not to take climate action, and as an excuse for its climate lies. And it’s how MIT can “deplore” climate science disinformation, yet propose nothing but “candid conversations” to deal with it.

As writer David Roberts observes, “Again and again this idealistic, apolitical wonkery has been chewed to pieces by the political process...Fossil fuels and their allies are loud and spend lots of money. Scientists and wonks are poor and quiet.”

Loud fossil fuel interests and the ultra-conservative minority understand that values, not facts, are the language of persuasion. Their morally-charged (and often disinformative) narratives run rings around quiet technocratic garble. The public confusion resulting from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries’ disinformation campaigns has even been quantified. Add to this the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by these companies lobbying Congressional climate deniers (quadruple that to non-deniers), and it’s unsurprising that this year the U.S. Senate again refused to pass an amendment simply stating that climate change is caused by humans. The whole world forfeits a legally binding climate treaty primarily because of Capitol Hill.

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Misframing #2: Climate change is a problem of greenhouse gases, not fossil fuels

Marshall finds that “the largest, most extraordinary, and damaging misframing...was that climate change could be defined entirely and exclusively as a problem of gases.” Never in the twenty-five years of international climate negotiations, Marshall and George Monbiot discovered, has there “been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production.” And this year’s talks in Paris were no different. It’s a testament to the power of the climate narrative’s framing that, unlike every other issue – overfishing, illegal logging, or drug smuggling, say – when it comes to carbon, no one ever thinks to address supply as well as demand: to suggest that stopping climate change might mean keeping fossil fuels underground.

This status quo framing explains what Bill McKibben terms “status quo climate denial.” How the world’s governments can accept the science and extol its importance, and then completely ignore its meaning; profligately subsidizing an industry whose business is incompatible with the climate agreement they just signed. It explains why policy has always fixated on regulating and trading greenhouse gases, and ignores the possibility of also targeting the fossil fuels that produce them. And it explains how MIT can valiantly fight climate change with the one hand, yet feed it $700 million of fossil fuel investments with the other.

Divestment can help rewrite the climate narrative, and it’s working

The technocracy of greenhouse gas emissions has floundered for thirty years, epitomized by the incremental escapism of the international negotiations. Climate change desperately needs new frames – new mental structures to help us understand how things work, and how things should work. Divestment offers one strategy for putting morals and fossil fuels back into the narrative (#NoKXL was another).

Divestment morally charges the climate narrative by giving us a voice. Most of us individually have little power or wealth, but through our institutions we wield megaphones to public and political opinion. With divestment’s proven theory of change, we shout through them, turning incremental wonkery into a moral imperative for action. In normal politics, efforts by fossil fuel interests to undermine our science and our futures are just the sad price of doing business. In a moral crisis, they’re intolerable. Critics who say divestment is “only” symbolic miss that that’s the whole point. The Montgomery bus boycott was “only” symbolic too. Symbols represent paradigms that shape our worldview, making them potent storytelling elements for challenging the paradigms that have led us to climate crisis – for reframing climate change.

Simultaneously, divestment connects climate change to fossil fuels - as head-smackingly obvious as it should be – with an efficacy that few narratives come close to matching. It leverages the scientific and moral clarity of the carbon budget’s terrifying math to combat global-scale doublethink, calling out institutions like MIT for investing in the extraction of fossil fuels they know the world can never safely burn.

As science seeks truth, divestment speaks truth to power. And it seems to be working. Last week in Paris it was announced that portfolios worth $3.4 trillion have begun dropping coal or all fossil fuels. We need to “keep some fossil fuels in the ground,” President Obama echoes. “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms,” he urges students. In three years, “unburnable carbon” has become the new norm at many of the world’s biggest banks, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, universities, and cities. Most of all, divestment is kindling a sense of generational mission in the climate change generation, mobilizing an army of us to action.

The Paris accord codifies the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. The only question is whether that end comes soon enough. This is a race against time to bend the money, politics, and leadership of our global institutions from 3.5°C, where they currently point, to 1.5°C, where they need to be. Reframing the climate narrative has never been more crucial. Young people understand this, and divestment has ignited our moral courage to do something about it, including sitting-in at our universities. The promises made at Paris not only vindicate our movement, they light a fire under it.

Geoffrey Supran

Geoffrey Supran is a PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. He is a leader of the Fossil Free MIT divestment campaign and was a SustainUS youth delegate to the 2014 UN Climate Change Conference.

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