Divestment Is Hypocritical

Many have dismissed fossil fuel divestment by pointing out the apparent “hypocrisy” of divesting from an industry that we rely upon. This theme is redundant and unfortunate, since it is both a fallacious argument and a dodge.  Below are examples:

“I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.  Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.” –  President Drew Faust, Harvard University

“But the practical reality is that today, coal is the source of approximately 40 percent of the world’s electricity and it provides needed energy for millions of people throughout the world. In many regions, there are serious technological impediments to transitioning away from coal. In addition, coal is used in the production of other products, such as cement and steel, which are central to the economies of both developed and developing countries.” – President Christina Paxson, Brown University

“It seems unlikely to us that divestment from fossil fuel would ‘revoke a social license’ when we continue to use fossil fuels day after day in every aspect of our lives.” – Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), Columbia University

While superficially appealing arguments, the fallacy emerges from the blurry line between what is and should be. It asserts that we cannot attempt what ‘should be’ if we are currently engaged in that which we should be getting away from. So, the contention is that we ought to remain invested in fossil fuels because we are using them, despite the acknowledgment that in actuality we ought to be transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The missing piece is what the future portends if we continue burning fossil fuels. Just because we have a deep reliance on fossil fuels, one that is staunchly defended and extended by the extractive industries involved, does not mean we should continue to remain invested them. We should be shifting our financial resources away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energy sources to accomplish the transition to a low-carbon world as the science demands we do to preserve human civilization, per the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Another fallacy implicit in these arguments is the perception that individuals are free to make energy consumption choices, which they are not. We are embedded in a culture and economy that has historically come to rely on fossil fuels. Again, that reliance is enforced stridently by the fossil fuel industry. The “hypocrisy” argument fails to acknowledge that fossil fuel consumption is a structural issue, and not an individual choice.  

Applying the logic of Presidents Faust and Paxson and the ACSRI to slavery, American abolitionists were hypocritical and should have ended their activism since their clothes and other products that they consumed were made using slave labor. Conventional wisdom holds that they were not hypocrites.

The long-term goal of divestment is to achieve the transition to the world that we ought to be living in, irrespective of the world that we are living in, and that we are trying to transition away from, however dependent we may be on existing structures. If we stop our campaigning and lobbying because we are currently reliant on existing dysfunctional systems, then what would be the impetus for change? What could be the impetus for change in a highly-rigged system where the companies that we are targeting have more of a say in national policy than the citizens of this country?

The true hypocrisy is our institutions agreeing that we must transition to a low-carbon world as soon as possible, while at the same time betting on the fossil fuel corporations in which they are invested to continue delivering a steady cash stream now and in the future.

We cannot afford to delay and debate this issue when we have been warned that climate change will soon reach a tipping point, if it has not already. The result would be what some climate scientists, like Dr. James Hansen, refer to asgame over for the climate and for human civilization as well.