A Created Enemy: Inside Fossil Fuel Divestment

What began as a single campaign on a college campus in 2010, has grown into a worldwide movement.  It does not simply focus upon climate change or Green living, but rather de-funding the fossil fuel industry.  They call it divestment.

Fossil fuel divestment, the opposite of investment, means the selling of fossil fuel stocks. Recalling the successful 1980’s divestment campaign against Apartheid, fossil fuel divestment advocates hope to create both financial and social pressure to ruin the fossil fuel industry.  Whether it is college students protesting for the divestment of the school’s endowment or citizens marching for the divestment of the state’s pension, the movement has become a popular way for people to feel like they are fighting to save the earth from both the disaster of climate change and the evil of corporations.

Bill McKibben, one of the leading advocates of the divestment movement, co-founded 350.org, a global climate-change advocacy group which has held 20,000 rallies in every country in the world except North Korea.  In 2012, he wrote in the Rolling Stone magazine that “a rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies…And enemies are what climate change has lacked.”

In order to transform the climate change debate into a movement, McKibben needed an enemy.  So he started the divestment movement which casts the fossil fuel industry and those who invest in them as the morally sinister destroyers of the environment.  McKibben’s admission of creating an enemy to bolster his campaign should delegitimize the moral claims of the movement.  But it hasn’t.

GoFossilFree.org, one of the leading voices in fossil fuel divestment, speak of the moral motivations for their cause:

Fossil fuel divestment takes the fossil fuel industry to task for its culpability in the climate crisis. By naming this industry’s singularly destructive influence — and by highlighting the moral dimensions of climate change — we hope that the fossil fuel divestment movement can help break the hold that the fossil fuel industry has on our economy and our governments.

Go Fossil Free holds the fossil fuel industry responsible for destroying the planet and morally injuring its inhabitants.  While McKibben created an enemy, Go Fossil Free has made the fight against that enemy a moral one, citing floods and natural disasters allegedly caused by climate change.  This they claim as the “morality” of their cause.

However, one study notes that deaths related to climate (flood, drought, storms, extreme heat or cold) have dropped 98% since 1920.  The energy industry has facilitated the building of homes, heating, air conditioning, proper irrigation, and disaster warning systems.

Another fallacy upon which the divestment movement relies is that fossil fuels have created extreme amounts of pollution.  Yet, according to Forbes magazine, air pollution in the US has declined 72 % since 1970, in spite of a 47% total increase in energy use.  In addition, developed countries which use fossil fuels, have cleaner environments than underdeveloped countries where dumping waste in rivers and streams prevents access to clean water. In fact, one of the key differences between third world and first world countries depends upon access to reliable energy.

Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress and author of New York Times bestseller, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, notes that there are 7 billion people on the planet who need access to inexpensive, reliable energy in order to flourish.   3 billion of those people have virtually no energy.  For much of the world, lack of energy, not use of energy, has been the greatest barrier to growth and productivity

While the divestment movement has succeeded in creating both an enemy and a moral cause based upon fear and guilt, the evidence points to the reality that energy has helped hedge against climate-related disasters, and provided food and healthcare to aid human life.  Supporters fail to grasp how energy powers every modern convenience from a warm shower (natural gas), to adequate hospital care (electricity), to food (diesel-powered farm equipment) and offer few, if any, real solutions to our planet’s energy needs.

Photo credit: solarseven/Bigstock

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