As international climate negotiations in Doha stumble towards what many observers predict will be uninspiring agreements not nearly adequate to meet the urgent need to reduce global emissions, environmental campaigners in the US—led mostly by students—have taken new steps in forging a broad-based assault on what they see as the most powerful enemy when it comes to preventing the dangerous impacts of human-caused global warming and climate change.
The target? The fossil fuel companies themselves.
Fueled by a nearly month-long national bus tour by the group 350.org, college divestment campaigns have sprung up all over the US with student groups calling on university leaders to pull their financial investments out from oil, coal, and gas companies that profit from the exact activities that scientists have shown are warming the planet at an alarming rate.
“We've felt serious momentum along this transcontinental roadshow—but the numbers of full-on divestment campaigns got larger faster than we could have dreamed,” said 350 co-founder Bill McKibben. “A year notable for ice-melt, parched crops, and superstorms is going out with a different kind of bang: an explosion in activism, aimed squarely at the rogue fossil fuel industry.”
Meanwhile, advocacy groups Oil Change International and the Other 98% have teamed up to launch a public relations campaign of its own designed to put the fossil fuel corporations in their proper context.
Not mincing words, the group set up a website called Exxonhatesyourchildren.com and released this video:
Student activism, divestment campaigns get media lift
A frontpage article in The New York Times on Wednesday—which McKibben took as a feather in the cap of the campaign's building traction—reports that the students behind the movement "see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda."
“We’ve reached this point of intense urgency that we need to act on climate change now, but the situation is bleaker than it’s ever been from a political perspective,” William Lawrence, a Swarthmore College senior from East Lansing, Mich, told the Times.
Swarthmore is among 140 colleges that have now taken up the divestment question, urged by students to do more than "green their campuses" and sponsor academic debates.
The Times reports:
Students who have signed on see it as a conscious imitation of the successful effort in the 1980s to pressure colleges and other institutions to divest themselves of the stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.
A small institution in Maine, Unity College, has already voted to get out of fossil fuels. Another, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, has adopted a broad investment policy that is ridding its portfolio of fossil fuel stocks.
“In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change,” Stephen Mulkey, the Unity College president, wrote in a letter to other college administrators. “Our students are already demanding action, and we must not ignore them.”
But at colleges with large endowments, many administrators are viewing the demand skeptically, saying it would undermine their goal of maximum returns in support of education. Fossil fuel companies represent a significant portion of the stock market, comprising nearly 10 percent of the value of the Russell 3000, a broad index of 3,000 American companies.
Most college administrations, at the urging of their students, have been taking global warming seriously for years, spending money on steps like cutting energy consumption and installing solar panels.
The divestment demand is so new that most administrators are just beginning to grapple with it. Several of them, in interviews, said that even though they tended to agree with students on the seriousness of the problem, they feared divisive boardroom debates on divestment.
Even some seasoned environmentalists supportive of the goals of the campaign, find themselves questioning the strategy of the college divestment approach.
Christian Parenti, journalist and author of the book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, asked earlier this week if the divestment tactic would ultimately be the most effective, writing:
I am all for dumping carbon stocks, if for no other reason than a sense of decency and honor. But how is dumping oil stock supposed to hurt the enemy? The boards of oil companies will be embarrassed? The spectacle of the discussion around divestment might provoke actions on other fronts—like legislation? I am not at all clear on how this is supposed to work.
For many of the students involved, however, it is precisely the symbolic and evocative nature of their campaign that makes it the right strategy for the current political moment.
“It’s more of a symbolic thing,” said Abigail Carney, a Yale University student, in an interview with the Yale Daily News. “I don’t think the economic impact of Yale divesting will really hurt [the fossil fuel industry] that much, which is why the advocacy is really important."
Divestment advocates hope a large student movement and statements from major universities will send a strong message to national policy makers.
Oil companies hate your children
The new campaign by Oil Change International and the Other 98% says that if you judge Exxon and other fossil fuel companies not by the rhetoric of their finely-polished TV ads, but by their actions and predictable consequences, it is easy to conclude that they "hate your children."
Claiming the "facts speak for themselves," the campaign asks the US public to consider the following:
Exxon must hate your children because their business model depends on drilling for more and more of the fuels that cause climate disruption, even though fossil fuel companies have already discovered significantly more oil, gas and coal than scientists say we can safely burn. They are creating climate chaos every day — and they’re getting rich doing it.
Even the International Energy Agency now agrees that in order to have even chances of limiting global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius (beyond which the worst impacts of warming will kick in), two-thirds of the current proven reserves of fossil fuels must remain in the ground by 2050.
Exxon must hate your children because, for years, they spent millions funding a coordinated campaign to create confusion about climate science, which slowed the move towards a more sustainable future. Now Exxon (finally) admits that climate change is a problem, but…
- They say they can’t predict what will happen, and
- Therefore they will continue business as usual.
In June 2012, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, acknowledged that burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, but said society will be able to “adapt”. Tillerson blamed a public that is “illiterate” in science and math, a “lazy” press, and advocacy groups that “manufacture fear” for misconceptions around the oil and gas industry.
Exxon must hate your children because they and other fossil fuel companies send campaign contributions to candidates for Congress, and in turn, they get massive subsidies…at the expense of more important causes. For every one dollar Big Oil spends on political contributions, they get $59 back in subsidies — a 5800% rate of return. Meanwhile, they make record profits — in 2011, just the 5 biggest oil companies alone (including Exxon) made roughly $135 billion in profits. The at least $10 billion annually in our tax dollars that goes to supporting these rich fossil fuel companies should instead go to building a safe future for all our children.
Exxon must hate your children because climate change threatens the future of all of our children, and they seem to just ignore it. Even before Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States, we were witnessing climate impacts on a daily basis, and they’re only getting worse. Just this summer, we’ve seen drought engulf the breadbasket of America. We’ve seen freak storms ravage the Midwest and east coast. All of these impacts are consistent with scientific predictions of climate change. Yet Exxon continues drilling and funding Congressional campaigns, in order to get more subsidies to feed their addiction to their climate-destroying profits.