Great angry rant from Anglican Minister Byron Smith

An article in the journal Science has Anglican Minister Byron Smith fired up, and this came in from his facebook feed this morning.

***

*Angry rant ahead*

Bloody hell – yet another anti-divestment screed that hasn’t bothered to familiarise itself with the basics of the divestment movement. Unfortunately, this isn’t some irrelevant backwater publication but appears in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world.

Divestment is a political campaign with political objectives. The bankruptcy sought for the industry is primarily moral, rather than financial (that comes later).

The proximate goal of divestment is to hobble the power of the fossil fuel lobby, based on an analysis that says that one of the biggest roadblocks to effective climate policy in many nations (esp most of the most powerful ones) is that the regulators have been captured by industry, which is why policy responses have generally been muted despite large majorities in most nations supporting stronger climate action. For instance, Australia is about to reach a bipartisan agreement to slash its Renewable Energy Target by about 20%, despite nine in ten voters wanting the target to be kept or strengthened.

That is: divestment is about corruption, not market competition.

“Even advocates of divestment admit that the main purpose is to raise awareness.”
Bovine manure. The main purpose is to render toxic fuels toxic politically. This was the strategy used against the power of the tobacco lobby, which continued to largely write (or seriously water down) regulations for decades after it had become clear it was killing people by the millions. It was not until a global divestment campaign (in conjunction with concerted public health messaging and legal action to bring their misinformation campaign to light) that the power of the lobby was broken as their social license was revoked (or at least compromised). Better regulation followed (limiting advertising, restricting sales, quit smoking campaigns, etc.). But it was breaking the lobbyist’s illusion of respectability that opened the space for saner policy in the face of a destructive industry.

I am yet to see a piece critiquing the divestment movement that demonstrates that it has grasped this central strategy, which amounts to just substituting your own assumptions about the goals and then telling off divestment activists for failing to meet them.

And the other criticisms are more or less laughable.

1. Divestment isn’t sufficient to solve climate change on its own? Of course not. Who ever said it was? Again, have they ever actually read any of the articulate defenders of divestment, or just based their ideas on what they overheard some undergrad say during a sit-in?

2. Divestment means losing money? Not according to a number of independent analyses, which have compared portfolios with and without exposure to major fossil fuel companies and found basically zero difference, or, in the case of more recent studies, a major financial advantage to divestment, given that the price of both coal and oil have slumped, with coal likely being in long term structural decline). (PS Who cares? If the industry is morally tainted, then it’s immoral to profit from it. Removing tobacco from your portfolio, as many institutions with a social conscience have done for some time, means losing money, but really this means ceasing to steal money from the health of the poor and addicted. Same for fossil fuels, but more so.)

3. Divestment means having to move fund managers? Really? A university couldn’t be arsed considering the idea of switching fund managers because it’s all a hassle? So no belief in the free market then. Once you’re with a fund manager, you’re stuck. Plus, if you’re an institutional investor the size of the NYU, then if you tell your fund manager to change priorities, if they want to keep your business, they will change priorities.

4. Renewables sector couldn’t handle the cash injection? This to me is one of the most risible suggestions, given the massive growth in the sector over the last few years. In 2013 and 2014 the world added more new renewable capacity than fossil and nuclear combined. The world added in 2014 more renewable capacity than the entire existing nuclear capacity of the US. This is no fledgling industry.

5. We rely on fossil fuels everyday? Give me a break. Of course we do and THAT IS PRECISELY THE PROBLEM. Seriously, haven’t the editors of Nature been reading any of their own articles, let alone the deluge of climate science that says we need to move away from a fossil economy as soon as possible? Alternatives exist. Continuing to invest in a dead end and deadly industry is what is really in denial of reality.

6. “The question is how to harness that angry energy — without further polarizing the debate. This is a collective problem, and vilifying the fossil-fuel industry merely displaces blame.”
Patronising and naïve. There is a reason the debate is polarised: that has been the deliberate strategy of powerful financial interests, the very interests most threatened by divestment. This is the conclusion of many historians who have looked into the issue. Global warming used to be a bipartisan concern (Illustration: Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in setting up the UNFCC and was the first major world leader to sound the alarm on the issue). So calling for non-polarisation and implying that divestment is polarising means upholding a double standard. It also means implying that divestment is ineffective, which means denying the conclusion of many experts with far greater political and economic credentials than the editors board of Nature (including the fossil fuel industry itself, which is clearly becoming more spooked by the campaign).

So this turned into quite the tirade. My anger is not directed at you if you feel confused or have questions about divestment. That is natural. It is a complex topic. But editors at Nature ought to know better if they are going to yell something like this from their massive soapbox. I have very little sympathy for pieces like this that demonstrate almost no familiarity with the topic at hand, or which read like a puff piece from fossil PR. Seriously, I do wonder if there is some kind of hidden backstory here since this piece demonstrates most of the fallacies beloved of spin doctors: selective reading of opponents’ argument, cherry-picking data, calls for (false) balance, impossible demands, ignoring credentialed experts. But what really gets me frustrated in this case is the location in which these talking points are being aired. It shames a publication with the reputation of Nature to put their name to it.

If you’d like a good summary/debunking of ten common myths about the divestment movement (many of them deliberately created and disseminated by fossil fuel PR people through op-eds that look and sound remarkably like this one), then this is an excellent short piece: http://www.theguardian.com/…/10-myths-about-fossil-fuel-div….

If you want to learn more or get started yourself on divestment, then check out marketforces.org.au or gofossilfree.org.

Like and share if you’re frustrated at the misrepresentations of the divestment movement from a body like Nature, or if you just enjoy the odd grumpy diatribe for Friday afternoon entertainment.

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