How Bill McKibben’s Radical Idea of Fossil-Fuel Divestment Transformed the Climate Debate
By Todd Schifeling and Andrew J. Hoffman
"We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization."
With these words, environmental activist Bill McKibben launched a radical and moral broadside against the fossil-fuel industry and its contributions to climate change in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012.
In a coordinated move, the McKibben-founded climate advocacy group 350.org launched its Go Fossil Free: Divest from Fossil Fuels! Campaign with a stated goal to "revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry." With the help of activist college students, the movement sought to stigmatize fossil fuel companies, restrict future cash flows and depress share prices by compelling universities to divest their holdings in these companies.
Now, five years later, the effort seems to some to have been a failure, at least by the financial measures they laid out. Only a limited number of institutions have divested their endowments, and the stocks of major fossil-fuel companies show little effect.
But in doing a network text analysis of news articles, we found that by other measures the effort has been a success. Exhibiting a phenomenon in the social sciences called the "radical flank effect," McKibben and 350.org have dramatically altered the climate change debate in the U.S. Their success on this dimension offers important insights relevant for all social activists to consider.
Parallel in Civil Rights Movement
First introduced by sociologist Herbert Haines in 1984, the radical flank effect refers to the positive or negative effects that radical activists can have on more moderate ones in the same cause.
The negative radical flank effect creates a backlash from opposing groups. In such cases, all members of a movement—both moderate and radical—are viewed with the same critical lens. For example, some may think that all environmental groups should be judged by the tactics of those who spike trees to prevent logging or ram whaling ships.
Conversely, the positive radical flank effect is when members of a social movement are viewed in contrast to each other; extreme actions from some members make other organizations seem more palatable or reasonable.
Bill McKibben (on right) speaks at a 2015 event to pressure Harvard University to divest from its financial stakes in fossil fuel companies. 350.org
Haines first studied this in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When Martin Luther King Jr. first began speaking his message, it was perceived as too radical for the majority of white America. But when Malcolm X entered the debate, he extended the radical flank and, as a result, made King's message look moderate by comparison.
Russell Train, second administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, articulated the positive radical flank effect in the 1970s when he quipped, "Thank God for David Brower. He makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable." Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, was a controversial figure who pushed the environmental movement to take more aggressive actions.
The Radical Flank Effect and Divestment
It was in 2012 that McKibben and 350.org staked the radical flank by mobilizing students to pressure their colleges or universities to liquidate their investments in fossil fuel companies.
This was a far more extreme position than was previously taken by activists in the climate change debate. Namely, where others argued for industry-wide controls on carbon without demonizing any particular industry, McKibben's radical flank portrayed the fossil-fuel industry as a public enemy and called for its extermination.
The campaign's goal was to stigmatize—and thereby harm—the value of fossil fuel companies. But in our study, we found the ultimate effect of their efforts was not so much financial as on the terms of the debate over climate change.
We used text analytics software to sift through 42,000 news articles about climate change between 2011 and 2015 and map the influence of the radical flank. In this analysis, we found that the divestment campaign expanded rapidly as a topic in worldwide media. In the process, it disrupted what had become a polarized debate and reframed the conflict by redrawing moral lines around acceptable behavior.
Our evidence suggests this shift enabled previously marginal policy ideas such as a carbon tax and carbon budget to gain greater traction in the debate. It also helped translate McKibben's radical position into new issues like "stranded assets" and "unburnable carbon," the idea that existing fossil fuel resources should remain in the ground.
Although these latter concepts are still radical in implication, they adopt the language of financial analysis and appeared in business journals like The Economist, Fortune and Bloomberg, which makes them more legitimate within business circles.
Thus, the battle cry of divestment became a call for prudent attention to financial risk. By being addressed in these financial publications, the carriers of the message shifted from grassroots activists to investors, insurance companies and even the Governor of the Bank of England.
The radical flank effect and our findings offer some critical insights for social activists.
Social movements typically achieve influence by gaining attention from news media and gaining buy-in from critical supporters. A conventional approach might collapse these goals into a plan to directly challenge specific targets, as when a labor campaign elicits public support to unionize a workplace or an environmental campaign seeks to shut down a specific pipeline.
More radical movements than divestments, such as blaming capitalism for lack of progress on environmental problems, have not been as effective in shaping the climate debate in the U.S. Stephen Melkisethian
Instead, our analysis shows the value of distinguishing between challenging specific targets and changing the broader public discourse. Although the divestment campaign chose an objective that was largely impossible to fulfill, its tactics expanded the boundaries of the public debate and enhanced the viability of progressive issues. As such, the radical flank effects social change indirectly by creating opportunities for more moderate groups and issues to become more influential.
But, it is important to note that this works in some circumstances and not others. Radical positions can go so far that they have limited effects on the mainstream, which appears to be the case for Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. In our data, we found her more extreme calls to "shred capitalism" had a far more limited effect in the public debate.
Our study also suggests that indirect attempts to shift the debate may be especially useful in highly polarized issues like U.S. climate politics. In these conditions, direct challenges are likely to meet unyielding resistance, while a more indirect route may create space for incumbents, such as established corporations, opinion leaders and politicians, to positively re-evaluate climate activist positions.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.