Keystone XL and divestment: Building an effective climate campaign
by: Brett Sykes
Recently, the Bard Center for Environmental Policy’s national climate seminar series hosted divestment campaign manager Jay Carmona and digital campaigner Duncan Meisel to talk about 350.org’s ongoing effort to fight global warming. Together 350.org’s national divestment campaign and fight against the Keystone XL pipeline project are two of the most well know climate action campaigns in the United States. These campaigns highlight the importance of citizen led action groups in creating change.
350.org is a global network that leads grassroots campaigns around climate issues in an effort to organize an effective large scale climate movement. Founded in 2008 by a group of university students and well known author, Bill McKibben, 350.org has been successful in organizing large scale action to match the size of the climate crisis. A good example of 350.org’s work is the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Fossil fuel divestment calls for large institutions that serve the public good to remove fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.
The divestment campaign began out of the student climate movement and was quickly gaining momentum by the time 350.org joined the cause in 2012. Since that time, the movement has progressed rapidly. Eleven universities have already committed to divestment with growing campaigns at many others. The movement is also moving up towards bigger pools of money. A wide range of municipalities and religious institutions have either fully divested or committed to divestment. While Jay acknowledges there is likely to be limited direct financial impact on fossil fuel companies, the idea is to create a stigma similar to that seen in previous divestment campaigns that can lead to a wide range of negative consequences. Furthermore, studies have shown that divestment will not hurt the value of an institutions portfolio. In fact, fossil fuel stocks have been underperforming as of late. The divestment campaign has the potential to draw national attention to the debate and show businesses and government that the public can and will speak with their dollar to create change. In addition to the successes of the divestment campaign, 350.org has seen success in leveraging the public voice to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline project.
President Obama’s recent announcement once again delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project, which presents yet another chapter in the long and winding fight against Canadian tar sand development. No group has been more active in the fight to keep the tar sand oil in the ground than 350.org. The Keystone XL campaign advocates for a “leave it in the ground” policy which pushes further than even a carbon tax or cap and trade policy that seeks only to slow down burning of fossil fuels. As the burning of the tar sands would effectively be “game over” for the fight against climate change, the decision on the pipeline is one of the most important issues in the climate movement.
Since becoming involved in 2011, 350.org has coordinated a campaign that has led the Keystone XL project to become a national story. A string of daily sit-ins culminating in the surrounding of the Whitehouse in November 2011 led President Obama to delay a decision on the pipeline while the State Department finished an in depth environmental impact study. After a series of supplemental impact reports the decision was expected in 2013. However, with the current delay on the decision, the final ruling may not happen until after midterm elections. During the process 350.org has continued to garner media attention through nonviolent protests and demonstrations in an effort to influence the final ruling.
No matter what the decision, 350.org will remain leaders in the climate change movement and continue to develop innovative and effective campaigns that match the scale of the problems they seek to address. The use of non-violent protests and divestment strategies highlight the public’s willingness to take financial action and risk the threat of arrest. The public’s support and positive outcomes of these campaigns prove that citizen led action groups can be successful in creating change.
To listen to this and other National Climate Seminars, click here.