Thursday, December 6, 2012

Climate Divestment part 1: The Four Levels of the Climate Challenge

During the past month, the climate movement in the United States has found new life. Since Hurricane Sandy forcefully inserted climate into the political conversation, numerous Op-Eds have appeared calling for federal action on climate change. In his acceptance speech on election night, President Obama clearly highlighted climate concerns, stating that "We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” And co-founder Bill McKibben recently completed the 21 city “Do the Math” tour, an effort to build a nation-wide fossil fuel divestment movement. Judging from the front page coverage “Do the Math” just received from the New York Times, it seems like the US climate movement is starting to gain mainstream attention.

Largely because of the excitement generated by the “Do the Math” tour, over 150 campuses have already joined the budding fossil fuel divestment campaign. In Missouri, five campuses (Webster, WashU, Westminster, Mizzou, and Missouri State) recently committed to launching a statewide divestment movement. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be organizing in the youth climate movement. There is something big building here, a palpable sense that this divestment movement might just have the potential to transform the discourse on climate change in the United States and create the political space for ambitious national action.

However, with so much attention suddenly given to fossil fuel divestment, it’s important to take a step back and think about the big picture of what we are trying to achieve. In the grand scheme of a global climate stabilization campaign, divestment is only one tactic in the much broader strategy of international political action. Our overarching goal is to stop catastrophic climate chaos, which means stabilizing climate below 2 degrees C or warming and keeping roughly 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. I believe that placing divestment campus organizing efforts within the context of the larger climate movement and even-larger policy realm will help young people to stay focused on the bigger picture, providing the understanding and motivation needed to support long-term divestment campaigns.

With this belief in mind, I created the diagram below to show how campus divestment fits into the broader effort to stop catastrophic climate change. The four levels of the system (planet, policy, movement, and campus) each have unique dynamics and a specific objective. Each smaller objective supports the objective at the proceeding level, creating an upward cascade of impacts starting from the campus level.

From the student perspective, action occurs primarily at the campus level. Here students have the most power to create change, as we can frame fossil fuels as a moral issue by running campus campaigns to divest their university from the fossil fuel industry. If enough campuses run divestment movements and spread this moral framing, the climate movement will gain enough support to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and produce breakthrough political action. This political action would result in significant global policy reform, putting a stiff price on carbon that changes global economic incentives enough to keep 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. By keeping 80% of fossil fuel carbon in the ground, we’ll achieve our global goal of limiting warming to below 2 degrees C and ensure a sustainable planet for our civilization.

Obviously, this model is grossly oversimplified. I make no distinction between local, national, and international policy, nor do I talk about any of the other movement components besides divestment that will be necessary to overcome the power of the fossil fuel industry. But I think the general idea is valuable: campus organizing efforts occur within the context of a movement that hopes to change policy in order to ensure a sustainable planet.

It is my hope that thinking in terms of these nested systems will help students and their organizing allies to be more strategic in conducting this national divestment campaign. Over the next week, I’ll create more detailed posts on each of the four levels. Hopefully this series will give readers a concise but thorough picture of climate change in the context of the fossil fuel divestment movement.

1 comment:

  1. You should get facebook pages set up for the MO campaigns and then have them listed on the map: