Last week, The Brandeis Hoot published an article titled, “The case against fossil fuel divestment” by Joseph Silber. In response, I’d like to start by explaining a bit about the history of the fossil fuel divestment campaign at Brandeis. I am a member of Brandies Climate Justice, the club behind the campaign. During this six-year campaign, student and faculty supporters of divestment have been meeting with the board to discuss the issue and in 2015, presented the board with a 174-page report. To divest at this point would certainly not be “to blindly give into protestors’ demands,” as the article says. The article also seems to make the assumption that the majority of the student body is not in support of divestment. There is no data to back up this assumption, and in fact, although unfortunately there is no recent data on student support for divestment, in 2013, there was a referendum in which students voted 79 percent in favor of divestment.
The article starts by talking about a recent boycott against the state of Maine in response to Maine Senator Susan Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The article rightfully criticizes these boycotts as misdirected. The major victims are innocent business owners who had nothing to do with Kavanagh’s confirmation. The article then, however, compares this to fossil fuel divestment, saying this is another example of misdirected anger. He is undermining fossil fuel divestment legitimacy by comparing it to this boycott, but it’s simply a false equivalency. While Maine seafood did not cause Brett Kavanaugh, fossil fuels actually cause climate change. Fossil fuel companies have, in fact, spread misinformation about climate change for years, making them directly responsible for putting us all in more danger today. They also lobby against the transition to renewable energy with billions of dollars, making the already difficult task of climate change mitigation nearly impossible.
The article says that “to divest a small amount from a select group of companies will achieve little-to-nothing in terms of turning the tide towards a more environmentally friendly planet,” so I will now explain what I see as the point of divestment because it goes beyond our endowment. Although Brandeis’ endowment is small, we believe that by divesting, we can encourage other institutions to do so, eventually setting a precedent that no institution with an “ethical investment policy” (like Brandeis) should have money invested in fossil fuels. In this way, divestment could make a financial impact. But besides literally taking money from the fossil fuel industry, the act of divestment can do more. The act of divesting is also symbolic. It’s a protest against the fossil fuel industry. It’s saying that we will not put up with any institution that holds us back on climate change action. Throughout the piece, the article talks about the importance of voting. I, along with the rest of Brandeis Climate Justice and environmental activists in general, agree that voting is enormously important (two of our core members are taking the semester off to canvas for the midterm election with an organization called the Sunrise Movement). But for great societal change, like the change needed to address the climate crisis, both direct and symbolic actions are needed.
The article’s first direct argument against fossil fuel divestment (besides simply saying that it is ineffective) comes when the author expresses concern about the low-income fossil fuel industry workers who could lose their jobs as a result of divestment campaigns. His concern for low-income workers is valid. As the article says, there is not enough being done to re-train these people in other fields. This is exactly why we need action, both by voting the right people into office and applying pressure through civic actions like divestment, to make the transition to renewable energy happen as quickly and painlessly as possible. Environmentalists do not wish to “throw tens of thousands of workers under the bus” as the article says, but we also do not want to throw hundreds of thousands of people in low-income, frontline communities all over the world who are already feeling the harsh effect of climate change “under the bus.”
I implore everyone who does not feel the urgency of the climate crisis to read the recent IPCC report. We simply cannot have fossil fuel companies continue to be the insanely large and powerful players they currently are and still have a safe world. It’s not best for the coal mine and gas station workers who can barely put food on the table because as climate change continues, food scarcity will rise, which will, in turn, raise food prices. Divestment is just one thing we can do to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry and show that we want to take immediate climate change action.