Fossil Fuel Divestment is Exposing Confusion on Climate (and That's a Good Thing)

Nature recently ran an editorial on fossil fuel divestment.  It’s an interesting piece for two reasons.  First, it presents the beliefs of an elite and highly educated group of people.  Second, it is very confused.

The fossil fuel divestment movement continues to go mainstream, with recent divestment announcements from the Church of England, the University of Washington, and the University of Oxford.  One of the useful aspects of the divestment movement is that in the process of arguing about divestment, people reveal their beliefs and assumptions about climate change and what to do about it.  (Who knew, for example, that the University of Colorado has climate deniers on its Board of Regents?)

What about Nature?  Its editors’ points of argument, in rough order, are:

  • Divestment is technically difficult because most funds are typically held indirectly.
  • It is impossible to avoid the worldly benefits of fossil fuels, and this relates to divestment being complicated.
  • The benefits of divestment are not clear.
  • At most, divestment will push stock prices down slightly.
  • The business model of the fossil fuel industry will continue until a “better” alternative “arises”.
  • The extra cash generated by divestment could not all be put into the clean energy sector, so universities would not know what to do with that cash.
  • The main purpose of divestment is to raise awareness.
  • Vilifying the fossil fuel industry will not help efforts to combat climate change.
  • Efforts should be focused on bolstering the science and implementing policies that will drive all investments in the “right” direction.
  • The primary role of universities is to conduct research, inform public policy, and educate leaders of the future.

It’s worthwhile to consider these beliefs.  Coming from the editors of Nature, they are not fringe arguments.  But many of these arguments point to various forms of confusion: missing the point, ignorance of the topic, logical confusion, and inaccurate assumptions.  If we recognize these confusions, we can avoid them in the future.

Many of Nature’s arguments are not strictly wrong, but they miss the point.  For example, Nature dwells on the technical difficulty of divestment by pointing out that New York University (NYU) directly controls just $700,000 of its $140 million in fossil fuel investments.  Divesting the entire $140 million might, indeed, be difficult.  However, the fact that NYU insists on holding onto the $700,000 in fossil fuel investments that it does directly control shows that the debate right now is about principles, not technical feasibility.  Indeed, past divestment decisions by universities often pertained only to directly held investments, yet they were still undertaken as a matter of principle, and they still had social and political effects.  At some point in the future, technical feasibility might be the limiting factor for fossil fuel divestment, but currently it is not.

Some of Nature’s arguments appear to be ignorant of the topic at hand, such as its claim that the main purpose of divestment is to raise awareness and its assessment that divestment will, at most, push stock price down slightly.  One of the purposes of the divestment movement is to raise awareness of climate change, but its other purposes include establishing climate change as a popular moral issue, establishing new investment norms, and politically marginalizing business models that are dangerous.  With regard to stock prices, there is widespread agreement that divestment is not likely to lead directlyto reduced stock prices, with the possible exception of coal stocks.  It is possible that stock prices could be reduced indirectly if divestment succeeds in stimulating regulation, uncertainty regarding the fate of fossil fuel companies (leading, for example, to increased financing costs), or market corrections to adjust for overvaluations (e.g., due to potential “stranded assets”).  Regardless of these possibilities, influencing stock prices is not one of the main purposes of divestment.  A useful assessment of divestment (or any strategy) would consider what it purports to do, not just what it purports not to do.

Some of Nature’s arguments are logically confused.  These can be the most interesting arguments to analyze, because they can reveal cognitive dissonances in ways of thinking about the climate problem.  For example, Nature appears to suggest that divestment should not be undertaken because societiescurrently use fossil fuels.  The message seems to be that we should not repudiate that which we currently depend upon.  However, if we followed that line of reasoning, then we would not undertake the host of actions that we carry out already in order to curtail the use of fossil fuels, such as reducing institutional emissions, developing substitutes for fossil fuels, and promoting the deployment of those substitutes – all of which are repudiations of our use of fossil fuels.  Indeed, the facts that we are currently dependent on fossil fuels and that we also want to bring an end to that dependence as quickly as possible is the climate problem in a nutshell.  Thus, if an action would potentially help to bring an end to fossil fuel dependence, then it merits consideration.  There are discussions to be had on how and if divestment from fossil fuels would help to bring an end to such dependence.  However, the practice of rejecting proposed strategies for reducing the dependence on fossil fuels because that dependence exists is tantamount to ignoring the problem altogether (and, practically speaking, is not likely to be a good strategy for making progress).

Another belief espoused by Nature that is logically confused is that the current business model of the fossil fuel industry will continue until a “better” alternative “arises”.  This conceptualization of what will replace fossil fuels (some unnamed “better” alternative technology) and when that replacement will occur (at some point in the future when that technology “arises”) is misleading because it glosses over howand over what timeframe that replacement could occur, and in particular it ignores the important question of how to accelerate such a replacement through current decision-making.  It treats the replacement of fossil fuels by alternatives as a future process that is not subject to human agency or decision-making in the present.  This conceptualization is neither accurate nor useful.  The idea that the current business model of the fossil fuel industry will continue as it is until a replacement of it occurs is likely inaccurate, because replacing fossil fuels with alternatives is likely to entail significant changes in the business models of fossil fuel companies as that replacement occurs, and possibly even beforesignificant replacement occurs.  For instance, if effective public policies are ever implemented to cap cumulative global emissions (e.g., as a result of this year’s UN Conference of Parties in Paris), then the business models of fossil fuel companies might have to change substantially even before widespread replacement of fossil fuels occurs (e.g., by reducing expenditures on exploration for and development of new reserves – particularly high-cost and high-carbon reserves, by increasing expenditures on emission mitigation technologies like carbon capture and storage, and by expanding business operations in fossil-free energy sources like geothermal).  In essence, Nature is arguing to avoid a strategy designed to accelerate the replacement of fossil fuels because that replacement hasn’t happened yet. 

Both of these logical confusions – that we should reject strategies to reduce fossil fuel dependencebecause that dependence exists, and that we should reject strategies to accelerate the replacement of fossil fuels because that replacement hasn’t happened yet – are examples of arguing not to take steps toward solving a problem because that problem hasn’t been solved yet.  Various forms of this argument are surprisingly common in debates about climate change.

Finally, some of Nature’s arguments rest on assumptions that are likely to be inaccurate.  For example,Nature argues that vilifying the fossil fuel industry will not help efforts to combat climate change.  But this is an argument in need of evidence, or at least some basis in logical reasoning.  There are lots of (perhaps obvious) reasons why vilifying the fossil fuel industry will likely help efforts to combat climate change: vilification could reduce the industry’s ability to influence some governments, reduce its ability to attract talent, and increase the degree to which the industry is monitored by the media, by voters, and by politicians.  These could all help efforts to combat climate change, because they could reduce the competitiveness of fossil fuel companies in defending against replacement by alternatives.  Furthermore, when targets (such as the fossil fuel industry) are vilified, they are vilified for certainbehaviors that members of society want to discourage.  Right now, the fossil fuel industry is being vilified for funding climate denial, for pursuing business plans that are incompatible with climate change mitigation goals, and for obstructing public policies that would combat climate change.  Discouraging these behaviors is useful for combating climate change, and vilification of those who engage in these behaviors is part of that process.  Of course, Nature may feel that vilification is not nice, but this is a separate question from whether it is useful (and whether it is warranted).

Perhaps the most telling of Nature’s assumptions, though, is that the “real” challenge in combating climate change is to bolster the science and implement public policies that “will drive all investments in the right direction.”  Nature lumps together these two activities – bolstering science and implementing policies – as if one leads to the other.  However, more science has not led directly to the implementation of effective policy, as US climate policy over the last few decades illustrates well.  Of course, doing more science would be useful, and implementing effective public policies to combat climate change would also be useful.  The question, though, is how to achieve such implementation.  Facilitating such implementation is a major goal of many grassroots political movements, including the fossil fuel divestment movement, and some of these grassroots movements are successful in that goal, and some are not.  However, to oppose such movements out of a belief that the primary way to implement policies is to do more science is a dangerous act of willful ignorance that is based on an inaccurate assumption (and, for Nature, a self-serving one at that).  If scientists are interested in combating climate change, not just studying it, they will have to come to terms with the likelihood that implementing policies will require political actions beyond doing science.  This is not to say that scientists, themselves, must be the ones who carry out such political actions.  However, it does mean that scientists mustn’t block political actions designed to combat climate change simply because those actions aren’t science.

The divestment debate is moving popular discussion away from binary questions like “Is it real?  Is it important?" to more complex questions like “What should we do about it right now?”   In the process, beliefs and assumptions are brought to light, some of which are useful for combating climate change, and some of which are not.  Nature’s editorial points to some of the important forms of confusion among even the most educated members of society: missing the point, ignorance of the topic, logical confusion, and inaccurate assumptions.  These forms of confusion impede progress even if they are not articulated and go unrecognized.  When the debate forces these forms of confusion to be articulated, it’s an opportunity to recognize them, to try to understand them, and to reduce their potential for impeding progress going forward.