The Carbon Tax Center has had qualms since day one about campaigns to compel institutions to divest from their fossil fuel holdings. The morality is great, but impact is lacking.
“Divestment can’t loosen the fossil fuel stranglehold without a carbon tax,” we wrote in a photo caption in our first stand-alone post on divestment four years ago.
Today, with a broadened outlook, we would write that divestment can’t loosen the fossil fuel stranglehold without a Green New Deal-level massive investment in decarbonization, with a robust carbon tax playing a major contributory role — a position we outlined in a post earlier this year, Carbon Tax Advocates Should Embrace a Green New Deal.
Our 2015 post outlined why fossil fuel divestment is a dead end:
Divestment by socially responsible investors, universities and even governments won’t starve capital flows to fossil fuel corporations anytime soon. That’s because in a global market, every share of stock we activists dutifully unload will be snatched up in milliseconds by some trader who can bank on humanity’s continued dependence on fossil fuels to continue generating profits. (emphasis added)
Why bring this up now? Because we just stumbled across an illuminating 2018 interview with U-Mass economist Robert Pollin, a prominent climate academic-activist and co-author of a detailed financial analysis of fossil fuel divestment impacts. The interview, posted at Truth Out in May 2018, is entitled, Are Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns Working? A Conversation With Economist Robert Pollin. Sadly but unsurprisingly, Pollin concluded in his analysis, also from 2018, that they aren’t.
Here’s the key excerpt. The questioner is C.J. Polychroniou, a Truth Out contributor and political economist-scientist. We added boldfaced type, for emphasis.
Q: One approach that has become quite popular in recent years is the strategy of divestment. However, the recent study you coauthored with Tyler Hansen questions the effectiveness of the strategy of divestment in reducing carbon emissions. How did your study come to that conclusion?
A: In this new research paper, Tyler Hansen and I concluded that divestment campaigns have not been especially effective as a means of significantly reducing CO2 emissions, and they are not likely to become more effective over time. Our study includes both an analysis of the available data on global divestment patterns as well as a formal statistical modeling exercise that evaluates the impact of divestment events — such as when the New York City pension fund decided last January to sell off all of their fossil fuel company holdings — on the stock market prices of fossil fuel companies.
We found two basic things from this research. First, to date, we found the total level of divestment commitments to be at about 0.7 percent of total global private fossil fuel assets (assets committed to divestment are at about $36 billion while total global private fossil fuel assets are at $4.9 trillion). Second, we found no evidence that any divestment actions, including the recent New York City pension fund decision, has [sic] had any significant negative effect on the stock prices of fossil fuel companies.
The basic problem with the strategy is straightforward. Ethically motivated owners of fossil fuel stocks and bonds — such as the New York City Council — do certainly have the power to sell these assets as a statement of principle and act of protest. But this act of protest will have no direct impact on the operations of the fossil fuel companies as long as investors who are profit-seekers, as opposed to being motivated ethically, are willing to purchase the stocks and bonds that ethically motivated investors have put up for sale. Indeed, the core divestment strategy of selling fossil fuel assets is, at best, incomplete until one addresses this question: Is there somebody out there still willing to purchase these fossil fuel assets, and if so, and at what price? The answer is, yes, there are plenty of people ready to purchase shares of fossil fuel companies as long as they can profit by owning these shares.
In addition, the profit opportunities from owning oil, gas and coal company stocks are not diminished through the divestment-led sales per se. This is because divestment per se does not affect either how much it costs to produce fossil fuel energy or how much consumers are willing to buy. In theory, divestments might be capable of pushing down stock market prices of fossil fuel companies. But it is also likely that any such impact on stock prices is going to remain negligible as long as profit-seeking investors continue to make money. And they will continue to make money unless we succeed in either raising costs of producing fossil fuels or limiting how much fossil fuel energy consumers can buy.
Pollin hastens to add, as we did in 2015, that he and his co-author Tyler Hansen “greatly respect the accomplishments of the divestment movement”:
[Divestment campaigns] enable activists to fight for goals that can be clearly articulated and achieved within the institutions and communities in which they work and live, as opposed to attempting to influence public policies where the decision-making process is more remote. Divestment campaigns also have a demonstrated record of success in raising consciousness as to the urgency of dramatic action on climate change, and the need to confront the power of the fossil fuel industry as the single greatest barrier to advancing a viable climate stabilization project.
Despite these substantial accomplishments, we nevertheless conclude, based on the findings we present here, that most efforts now devoted to divestment campaigns would be better spent on more direct efforts to drive down fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. We simply don’t have time to lose in pushing as effectively as possible on the fundamental goal which we cannot lose sight of — which is to drive CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions down to zero as quickly as possible. We need to remember that, at best, divestment is a means to an end, with the end itself being eliminating emissions.
There’s a wealth of supporting analysis in the Pollin-Hansen paper (here’s link, again). But the takeaway remains that divestment is primarily a tool for movement-building rather than carbon-busting. Climate laggards like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who wrap themselves in the mantle of fossil-fuel divestment are just green-washing.