Why demonising support for fossil fuels could backfire on campaigners
The predominance of fossil fuels in our media, public spaces and energy supplies suggests we need a cultural divestment
It’s easy to see why the fossil fuel ‘divestment’ campaign has grown so quickly. Hastening the demise of the fossil fuel industry by removing its financial life-support machine has an undeniable and attractive logic.
In the space of a couple of years, the concept has attracted a huge amount of support. Promoted by charismatic and persuasive voices such as Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben at 350.org, and embraced by universities, religious institutions, and even entire city-administrations, last month saw the first ‘Global Divestment Day’ celebrating the movement’s successful move into the mainstream.
However – as divestment advocates are the first to acknowledge – the mainstream is a relative term. Its estimated that $50bn has been removed from fossil fuel companies due to divestment campaigns. This is a striking success story. But it is also a fraction of what the industry turns over annually and the gaps in their investment portfolios would have been rapidly filled by speculators with a less delicate moral disposition.
We’re all guilty
The long term power of divestment lies, therefore, in its potential to transform the social consensus on the merits of a fossil-fuelled economy, and to create the political space for laws and legislation that will mean fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. This is not an easy notion to square with our current economic system of growth-based capitalism.
Campaigners point to the destabilising dynamics of public opinion that swirled around the divestment campaign in South Africa. Companies who associated with the racist regime could replace their investors, but they couldn’t replace their reputation. Perhaps the same fate will befall institutions and individuals that are complicit in the fossil fuel industry.
But – as is so often the case – climate change frustratingly doesn’t fit the mould.
Central to the rhetorical power of the divestment argument is an easily identifiable ‘bad guy’ (played here by the fossil fuel industry) from whom the rest of us ‘good folk’ can dissociate. But while it may be true that most of us don’t personally quarry the earth for burnable carbon, almost everyone pays a quarterly energy bill straight into the coffers of the fossil fuel industry.
To be clear, this doesn’t make us hypocrites: we are trapped in this arrangement, in many cases against our will. But it does make us complicit, whether we like it or not. This is problematic for a simplistic portrayal of climate change as a battle between good and evil (because the enemy is literally within).
But for divestment campaigns specifically, painting fossil fuel support as immoral or even ‘evil’ is a strategy that could backfire when the values and perspectives of those outside of the divestment movement come into play. It is hard to tarnish a company’s reputation when we find ourselves embroiled in it.
In COIN’s own research – with groups of young people, and in work that informed the Climate Coalition’s ‘For The Love Of’ strategy – we have found that people tend to react against an easy distinction between ‘us’ (fossil-fuel opponents) and ‘them’ (the power companies). Because most people have no choice but to use and spend money on fossil fuels, there is a risk that the general public will feel more affiliation with ‘them’ than ‘us’.
None of this means that the divestment movement does not have huge potential. If financial support is incrementally removed from fossil fuels alongside a meaningful cap on their extraction, the industry will literally shrink.
And, for climate change campaigners, divestment was the shot in the arm they urgently needed. After years of searching in vain for something exciting to say about international climate change negotiations, divestment campaigns – where each individual institution is targeted by separate groups of activists – offer repeated and credible ‘wins’. The feeling of momentum this produces (and the re-affirmation that committed activism can actually achieve tangible results) should not be underestimated.
But if divestment is to really go mainstream and start to uproot the foundations of the fossil-fuel system – it is going to need wider support. The feeling of momentum that is currently providing buoyancy for the climate change movement must be shared by a larger group of the population.
And for that to happen, there needs to be a much wider acceptance of the importance of climate change in the first place. All around us are signals that point in precisely the wrong direction: the prominence of fossil fuel advertising in our media and public spaces suggests that we are a long way from ‘cultural divestment’.
The real power of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign was in the broad-based social acceptance that racism was wrong. The divestment campaign gave a powerful voice to this movement, but it did not precede it.
COIN’s focus on involving a greater diversity of voices – from faith groups, to political conservatives, to communities affected by flooding – in the conversation about how to respond to climate change is one small step towards building a social consensus.
But when a majority of people identify with ‘us’ rather than ‘them’ in divestment campaigns, the real power of the divestment movement will be unlocked.
This article was first published in the Guardian.
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