UC Berkeley professor of law Steven Davidoff Solomon’s February 10 piece in the New York Times dealbook, “Colleges Use Anti-Apartheid Strategies to Battle Fossil Fuels,” makes a number of arguments about the futility of having the UC divest its General Endowment Pool of the $350 million or so in shares it holds in the 200 publicly traded oil, coal and natural gas companies with the largest carbon reserves [the GEP holds something over $7 billion, and we estimate that fossil fuel holdings represent about five percent of the total].
Almost all of Professor Solomon’s arguments are misleading or easily refuted.
After praising the success of the South African divestment campaign in the 1980s (a campaign in which one of us participated, the other not being born yet …), he argues that “unfortunately for the fossil fuel divestment movement, times have changed.” He argues that universities simply can’t afford not to invest in the lucrative fossil fuel industry without hurting the bottom line.
Wrong: independent analysis of which the UC is certainly aware concludes that divestment could have a negligible impact on the portfolio — and there is mounting doubt over the real worth of the fossil fuel giants given the fact that science shows they must leave eighty percent of their declared reserves in the ground or the planet will pass dangerous warming thresholds. The longer we wait to divest the more likely we are locking in a future plagued by horrendous and even more costly climate damage.
Professor Solomon’s next argument is that divesting from fossil fuels is at odds with our proper academic mission and would put the UC on “a slippery slope … once an endowment starts divesting for noneconomic reasons, it could be a very steep hill indeed. Investing would be dictated by a cacophony of political interests instead of sound economic principles.”
This is bad logic, especially in view of the fact that the UC has recently committed itself to the scientifically driven and morally responsible goal of going carbon neutral in its operations by 2025 — the very President of the UC has decided this is such an important issue that she’ll make it a top and very visible priority. How can there be a slippery slope when the UC’s administration have already pegged the drastic reduction of carbon emissions as one of their biggest promises for a better world?
Faculty, students and administrators are now engaged in an exciting real-life experiment to show that a sustainable, low-carbon university with a quarter of a million students is ecologically and economically viable. This initiative entwines our social and academic missions in a quest for innovative leadership in creating climate change solutions that will have ripple effects well beyond the university, state or nation. The Fossil Free UC campaign is not just about turning off the dirty energy tap that has brought us to the precipice of climate chaos; it is also about a re-investment of our vast human capital in the development of the clean energy world that we must create in the next quarter century, spanning the crucial years of life in which our current students will go out into the world to make their way and to make their mark.
Faculty, students and administrators are now engaged in an exciting real-life experiment to show that a sustainable, low-carbon university with a quarter of a million students is ecologically and economically viable.
Finally, we face the “it doesn’t achieve anything” view that a single university divesting cannot possibly influence the behavior or outsized power of the fossil fuel industry, which after all consists of some of the wealthiest corporations in the history of the world. Professor Solomon worries about the lack of economic impact of divestment and concludes, “Ending global warming may be a noble and worthwhile goal, but perhaps the activists should try instead to lobby Congress and those that directly make policy.”
It may seem at first glance counterintuitive that a campaign about divesture might have very little economic impact. However, divestment, even in the South Africa apartheid days, has always been about making a social and political impact through divesting, with potentially great consequences for the way we live on the planet (i.e. we need to think of economics now in light of the facts of climate change). We cannot fight the fossil fuel industry with money (they have too much of it), and when they also determine the main direction of most legislation in Congress, it’s difficult to see where conventional lobbying will get us.
So we turn to divestment. Divesting takes away the fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, pushing beyond lobbying and creating a movement of political pressure through the influence of public opinion and institutional culture. As this movement grows — and make no mistake, if the UC divests, it will bring a tidal wave of change — we will have so many institutions saying “we cannot and will not burn fossil fuels at this rate any longer” that inaction on climate change will come to be seen for what it is: irresponsible and dangerous.
That’s how divestment builds the political climate for climate action and strict regulation in the public interest. To narrowly stress the economics and to speak very little to the political and social impact of divestment is to devalue the movement’s potential to influence public opinion. That’s where the real power lies in divestment, and where we hold our world’s leaders accountable.
Victoria Fernandez is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Environmental Economics and Policy and double majoring in Society and Environment. She co-founded the campaign Fossil Free Cal in January 2013.
John Foran teaches sociology and environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the co-director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (www.iicat.org) and founding member of the Climate Justice Project (www.climatejusticeproject.com