On the ethics of fossil fuel divestment – a response to Willis Jenkins

A student of history and journalism from the University of Montana recently wrote to me about climate change and fossil fuel divestment (FFD).  She had read and studied my arguments against FFD and claimed to appreciate the different sides of the argument.  But this unsettled her and she felt disoriented.  “What should she do”, she asked me, “instead of supporting divestment?”  As a professor I far rather ask students difficult questions to provoke them to think more deeply about a topic than tell them how they should act in the world.  So I recommended that she read Willis Jenkins’ essay about divestment – “Should the University of Virginia Divest From Fossil Fuels? On the ethics of divestment” — which I had the fortune to read the day before.  Let me explain why.

My original essay was written in March 2015, in response to the rising attention being given at the time by UK universities to the FFD movement.  It was also a direct response to a debate on the topic hosted the previous month by the Principal of my university–King’s College London—which itself was a response to student pressure being brought to bear on the university’s investment policy.

Something about the divestment movement troubled me at the time—and still does—which explains the position I adopted back in 2015.  I am therefore grateful to Willis Jenkins of the University of Virginia for helping me to resolve more clearly what it is exactly that troubles me, which is that FFD offers too shallow a reading of the climate risks facing our world today and therefore too cheap and easy a solution.

Jenkins surveys the arguments for/against FFD in the context of his institution—the University of Virginia (UVa).  The conclusion that he reaches is that he supports FFD for UVa, albeit reluctantly, because “there seems no better option” and “divestment could force a public argument with ourselves”.  It is not so much his conclusion that is helpful for me as his reasoning along the way—and hopefully helpful too for my correspondent from the University of Montana.  Even whilst reaching his conclusion, Jenkins elaborates some of the arguments against divestment I made back in March 2015 and picks out others too.  Let me rehearse some of the main ones here.

(i) Emitting carbon dioxide is not intrinsically evil, unlike some other forms of human action which might demand decisive and morally-motivated responses.  Fossil fuel energy has supplied, and continues to supply, the world and its inhabitants with a secure, reliable public good—energy services to enhance human life.  That such energy causes climates to change is an unfortunate, and wholly unintended, by-product of a public good.  (ii) Divestment would be mere gesture since even if all universities removed their funds from all FF companies other investors would quickly fill the gap.  (iii) Divestment is too shallow a response to a much broader set of historical legacies and institutionalised processes which continue to pervert the life chances of the many.  (iv) And divestment, through “shaming bad actors”, offers an easy moralism for its advocates, whilst leaving untouched the “more serious task of shaping leaders” and promoting public well-being.

This much I agree.  But I would wish to offer a couple of challenges to Jenkins’ overall framing of his argument.  First, is placing anthropogenic climate change as “the most important problem” for the millennial generation already conceding too narrow a reading of the dangers we are creating for the future?  Climate change has gained iconic status with respect to the dangers of human agency over the Earth, but what about the undirected powers we are creating for ourselves over our own bodies and our sociability?

Why not root out culpability for the structural and economic injustices that kill over 5 million under-fives each year through preventable diseases?  Or what about the risks of permanently changing the human germline through new medical technologies?  Or how about the inadvertent consequences of new social media technology that limit our ability to relate to and empathise with others?  As Clark Miller argues in a recent essay, “Tesla cannot admit the possibility that a rapid shift to driverless vehicles may not be a good idea any more than Google, Facebook, Intel, or Cisco can admit that the Internet has opened up individuals and countries to massive challenges of cybersecurity, surveillance, manipulation, and corruption.”

Second, I don’t think Jenkins develops fully enough the “tragic” element of the human condition, one which I suggest is largely lost on the FFD movement.  Divestment seems to offer a narrative in which there is an assumed equivalence between moral purity and natural purity, by which I mean that an “uncontaminated climate” can be re-secured through pursuing an untainted moral conscience.  This is not to say that we should not reflect ethically on the possible consequences of our actions; far from it.  But the tragedy of the human condition is that our limitations as wise and knowing human agents mean that we are always choosing between courses of action that carry the seeds of injustice further afield.  The oft-cited analogy of slavery, used by the FFD movement, is a case in point.  Though institutionalised slavery was abolished in the 19th century there are more people enslaved today (c.46 million) through trafficking, prostitution and coercive practices than ever before.

I agree fully with Jenkins that universities must be politically aware, across the full suite of challenges ahead of us, and be willing to debate motions such as those brought to their attention by the FFD movement.  “Learning to imagine their involvements in planetary economies and then to create new possibilities of identify and leadership is what world class universities must cultivate in their students”.  To which I would add that learning how to decide how to act in a democracy when we disagree with each other for ideological, religious and ethical reasons is also central to what university education should offer for millennials.

This is why I supported the Principal’s debate at King’s back in 2015—an opportunity to bring arguments into public focus and contestation and learn the reasons why we disagree with each other.  Two consequences of that debate demonstrate the value of such moments of encounter.  First, King’s College London has amended its investment policy to one of phased divestment from companies involved in the dirtiest fossil fuels.  Second, as a consequence of the debate I was invited to advise a Church of England working group on divestment under the chairmanship of the Dean of King’s College London, Richard Burridge.  This report prompted the motion passed at Exxon Mobil’s recent shareholder meeting, against the wishes of the company, requiring the corporation to report on how its business will be affected by worldwide efforts to combat climate change.

I haven’t told my correspondent from Montana “what to do”.  But, through Willis Jenkins’ essay, and this commentary on it, I hope I have pointed her towards arguments which she can use to decide for herself how to act.

Mike Hulme, 6 July 2017