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Op-Ed | No, divestment isn’t enough — but it’s a crucial first step

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 02:02


Last Wednesday, Walt Laws-MacDonald published an op-ed in this newspaper entitled “Divestment isn’t enough.” The piece was framed as a criticism of the campaign currently underway at Tufts and other universities across the country to divest our endowments from the fossil fuel industry. However, Laws-MacDonald touches on so many of the key messages of this campaign and of the broader climate movement that his op-ed could almost be read not as a critique but as a call to action.

I am a junior, and have been organizing with a group called Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) since my freshman year. SJSF is an intercollegiate organization with a mission to mobilize and unite students and young people to fight for serious solutions to the threat of climate disruption, using whatever means are most effective. In the past, we have lobbied for legislation in the Massachusetts State House, mobilized locally and nationally to rally against the Keystone XL pipeline and collaborated with groups including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and 

For the last several months, SJSF has primarily served as a network for campus divestment campaigns like Tufts Divest for our Future, recognizing that the movement has sparked awareness and discourse about climate change in a monumental way. It seems like everyone is talking about divestment, and even people who have never considered themselves environmentalists, such as Laws-MacDonald, are entering the conversation. The teach-in that Laws-MacDonald attended filled the ASEAN Auditorium with people. We are now actively engaged in discussions with the Board of Trustees, at least in part because the Board recognizes that this movement is getting far too much attention for them to ignore us. 

However, Laws-MacDonald is absolutely right: Divestment alone is not enough. Given the urgency of climate change, we “need to be doing much, much more,” as he wrote. The United States needs to pass legislation to put a price on carbon and bring our emissions in line with what science demands. This is the most crucial part of the “fundamental change in how we power our day-to-day lives” that Laws-MacDonald rightfully demands. The International Energy Agency released a report in 2011 showing that if the world does not stop building all new fossil fuel infrastructure by 2017, we will be locked into catastrophic and irreversible climate change. That gives us four years. The UN is set to adopt a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in 2015, and that will be our last chance to act as an international community. In the face of such a massive and urgent threat, it’s easy to see how someone could feel that focusing on university endowments “is like putting up a few sandbags to stop a flood.”

But to argue that our divestment campaign is therefore an ineffective use of time and resources entirely misses the point. Bob Massie was right that a huge part of this campaign is “the debate.” And what an incredible debate we have sparked — fossil fuel divestment has made the front page of the New York Times, been featured in campus newspapers across the country, been regularly covered in the Nation, and sparked op-eds both supportive and critical in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to our own Tufts Daily. The fact that Laws-MacDonald felt compelled to write his piece at all shows that we have already partially succeeded. 

Divestment is not an economic plot to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry; but rather a strategy for political and social change. Divesting will not stop society from burning fossil fuels, but it will send a message that many in this country believe that the fossil fuel industry’s business model is fundamentally broken and morally bankrupt. Divesting will not cause ExxonMobil’s shares to plummet immediately, but it will separate our institutions of higher education — institutions that claim, as Tufts does, to be “committed to improving the human condition” — from an industry that is actively destroying our generation’s future. Divesting will not stop catastrophic climate change, but it will get a lot of people talking about it. We are forcing people to think about how climate disruption affects their lives (and their investment portfolios). Most importantly, this campaign is getting people involved, excited and ready to take a stand on one of the defining issues of our generation. Divestment is already catalyzing a social movement in this country, and it is our hope that the pressure this movement creates will help lead to the binding legislation that we need to effectively tackle this crisis. In the case of Darfur and South Africa, divestment was effective at transforming entrenched crises and at creating much needed legislation, and divestment can be effective again.

We also want to make this absolutely clear: Divestment is but one of many means to an end. When facing a challenge as dire and imminent as climate disruption, we must use all the tools in our proverbial toolbox to wage our fight. Laws-MacDonald may be excited to know that students, activists, and concerned citizens across the globe are already working on ways to “combat the industry that will cause real change.” In Texas, people have for months been blockading the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — a project that no one who thinks “climate change is very, very real” should support. There is a plan for, on Feb. 17, more than 20,000 people to fill the National Mall to urge President Barack Obama to reject that pipeline once and for all.

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