Divestment Politics 101


By Guest Contributor

We all know fossil fuels are contributing to Climate Change, but do you know how much power they hold in Washington?

Generally, our democratic system allows for voters to communicate with and affect those who represent them in Washington by writing letters, fundraising and voting. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies have rigged the system such that the normal pathways are blocked to the average citizen. Divesting our money from fossil fuel companies is the one route we have left to limiting their power and sway.

The government awards billions of dollars to fossil fuel companies every year in the forms of tax breaks, lower interest rates and price control incentives. These companies receive between $10 and $50 billion every year, much more than the entire budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. Rather than giving this money to companies contributing to climate change, it could be channeled into improving this problem or even alleviating the national debt. The president has, time and time again, brought this matter to the Congress but it has yet to change anything.

According to several polls, the majority of the general public agrees on cutting off fossil fuel subsidies. Nevertheless, our lawmakers continue to provide huge benefits to these companies. Why? Because of the large campaign contributions that fossil fuel companies provide.

Clean energy sources played a huge role in the discussion surrounding the 2008 elections. As a result of concern about dirty energy spending, environmentally friendly actors spent 1.5 times more on ads than fossil fuel companies. By 2012, the situation had completely reversed. This time around, fossil fuel companies spent four times as much as clean energy groups. The combination of drastically increased spending by fossil fuel companies and the stalling of climate change legislation in Congress left many people feeling powerless. The Climate Reality Project decided not to buy any ads in the 2012 election because they felt any money spent would only be a washed-out waste in comparison to the vast swaths of money fossil fuel companies poured in. Currently, coal, oil, and natural gas corporations are playing a huge role in Congressional decisions by supporting the campaigns of policy-makers aligned with their goals, lobbying in Washington, and running ads all over the country.

In 2014, the fossil fuel industry injected over $721 million into electoral races across the country.  With so much money to throw around, it is not surprising that they have, more or less, gotten their way in the political realm.  Even the engaged citizen cannot dream of swaying the government to the extent that the fossil fuel industry can.

How did this change come to pass, you might ask? Well, in 2010, the Citizens United v. FEC court case changed the rules on campaign finance. The Supreme Court ruled that, under citizens’ First Amendment right to free speech, corporations are now allowed to engage in the political process by spending exorbitant amounts of money and drowning out public opinion with misleading media content. Despite two previous Supreme Court rulings, which upheld citizens’ rights over those of corporations, the 5-4 decision opened the floodgates to the past six years of corporate rights. This ironically entitled shift has allowed for an increasingly corrupt political regime and a Citizenry that, even when United, remains disenfranchised in comparison to the pull that fossil fuel companies now possess.

Ads put out by the Natural Gas Alliance and Piedmont Natural Gas promote a heart-warming vision of American families benefiting from natural gas supplying cleaner energy throughout the country. What they neglect to mention is the harmful effects that fracking has on communities surrounding drill sites, and this obfuscation manipulates public perception.

With fossil fuels controlling the media and the government, and with common forms of political engagement largely unavailable to us, we turn to divestment as our last opportunity to speak. Many other divestment campaigns have come to the forefront in the past but none more powerful than Divest from South Africa of the late 1970s and 1980s. At that time, divestment grew to the point where corporations such as IBM and General Motors felt the impact on their business and withdrew their factories and contracts from South Africa. Eventually, with the added pressure of US legislation, the isolation of the apartheid regime resulted in its falling apart.

Keeping South Africa in our memory backpack, the environmental movement carries on, chugging away at our opposition. In just the past couple of years, 18 colleges, 64 religious institutions and a number of cities and other organizations have all taken the pledge to divest from fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are starting to feel the pressure, and every day we gain sway in their rigged system. Divestment signals to politicians the importance of climate change issues to the public, forcing them to act on these matters so vital to our lives. As Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Emma Ronai-Durning ’18 is from Salem, Ore., Kate Johnson ’18 is from Bedford, Mass. and Amosh Neupane ’18 is from Queens, N.Y.