From Doha To Divestment: The Search For A Real Strategy To Combat Climate Change

by Jim Shultz

If you wanted to design a global crisis that the world’s political systems would be particularly incapable of solving, it would be hard to do better than climate change.

Unlike a meltdown of the banking system or an attack from the sky, climate change does not come upon us suddenly and command our sense of urgency. It creeps closer towards us year-by-year as record heat, decimating storms, and historic ice melt.  Most of the measures proposed in response bear the uncomfortable feel of sacrifice – paying more for gas or living less large in our material possessions – and sacrifice does not make for good politics. Add in the powerful corporate machinery engaged in protecting coal and oil interests and it is little wonder that the political process is frozen.

As a result, the most significant and irreversible threat that our generation poses to the future is marked by an almost complete political incapacity to act. The only force with any chance of getting the political process to move is citizen action. But what kind, applied where, and with what aim?

Much has been written about the grim consequences of the climate crisis and much has been written as well about what, in an ideal political world, we should do to prevent those consequences. But the question that lingers unanswered is this: What can we do in the political world in which we actually live that can make a significant difference while there is still time?

Global Summitry, the Dead End

For more than a decade a major focus of citizen action on climate has been the pursuit of an international agreement that would bind nations to swift and significant reductions in carbon emissions. From Bonn to Doha, climate campaigners have traveled to UN summits demanding action. The appeal of a global agreement is clear – setting an international speed limit on global warming with every nation doing its part to meet that goal. It is also easy to see, unfortunately, why a serious agreement on carbon emissions has proven politically impossible to achieve.

A truly binding commitment on carbon emissions would require that the major carbon polluting countries in the world – the U.S., China, India and others – effectively surrender some measure of their sovereignty, over energy policy for example.  To believe that they will ever do so is, unfortunately, a fantasy. Their domestic politics would never allow it.  Simply consider the probabilities of President Obama signing such an accord and winning its approval in the U.S. Congress.

For moral and educational reasons it is still important to call on nations to act in these forums, but it is a serious strategic error to believe that global climate summitry will deliver anything approaching a binding and serious agreement to reduce emissions.  These summits remain important because they are setting policy on issues like financing for climate adaptation. But they are not where we need to wage the fight for substantial emissions cuts.

The reality is that the political decisions that will most determine the Earth’s ecological future are not going to be made internationally but nation-by-nation, state-by-state, and community-by-community. These are the places, far more than in international forums, where citizen action on climate must make its stand.

Targeting the Climate’s Enemy

“Movements require enemies,” writes climate activist Bill McKibben in a widely read August article in Rolling Stone, “and enemies are what climate change has lacked.” McKibben also has a strong nomination for who that enemy needs to be – the fossil fuel industry and its giants such as Exxon, Chevron, and Shell. He notes further that the fuel reserves that these and other companies have underground ready to market into the atmosphere are five times what the climate could possibly cope with under even the best-case scenarios.

McKibben and his organization have launched a nationwide campaign aimed at the fossil fuel industry and are rallying people behind a strategy – a demand that universities, public pension funds, and other institutions ‘divest’ their stock holdings in that industry.

Targeting the fossil fuel industry is essential. Like the tobacco industry before it, these corporations have assembled the same powerful arsenal in their defense –fake science (‘clean coal’ is the new ‘filtered cigarettes’), piles of political money, and warnings about job losses in tough times (coal miners and pipeline workers are the new tobacco farmers). It also helps to have vast numbers of people addicted to your product. As with tobacco, the fossil fuel industry knows that the damage it causes will eventually become undeniable and restrictions will follow, but the longer the industry can use politics and public relations to buy delay the more profit it can take from its sunk investments.

The power of these divestment efforts is their potential to rally public attention to the industry and its role in the climate crisis. But divestment as the target for action raises the same question as global summitry does: Is it a strategy with a chance of delivering the goods or is it a dead end?

The divestment call to action declares, “If we start with these local institutions and hit the industry where it hurts — their bottom line — we can get their attention and force them to change. This was a key part of how the world ended the apartheid system in South Africa, and we hope it can have the same effect on the climate crisis.”

Exxon, Shell, Chevron and the others, however, are very different institutions than South Africa’s apartheid government was in the 1970s and 1980s and subject to very different economic and moral pressures. The divestment campaigns aimed at South Africa translated into domestic political pressures on the ruling National Party and helped force it to the negotiating table with the ANC.  In the case of the oil giants, even if divestment efforts do succeed in provoking modest sell-offs of stock, corporations sitting atop scarce and valuable resources and record profits are likely to have little problem finding eager new buyers.  In terms of moral pressure, it seems equally improbable that corporate boards will grow so tired of being despised that they voter to walk away from those profits and shift their investments to renewables. It is not how mega-corporations are programmed.

Bob Massie of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, observes, “We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.” He is right, but the ties that truly bind us economically to Chevron, Shell, Exxon and their like are not as investors, but as consumers. The lifeline we give them is not from buying their stock but burning their gas. Until that changes, they will be happily content to keep drilling, pumping, burning and raising the temperature of the planet.

In the end the fundamental challenge remains the same – altering the energy consumption habits of massive numbers of people in deep ways very fast.  We have to make fundamental changes in the ways we transport ourselves, how we power our homes and factories, and how we build lives on a fragile planet that do not depend on relentless consumption of finite natural resources.  All of that requires smart and strategic political action aimed at both corporations and governments, and not just in one forum but thousands all at once, worldwide.  It’s worth noting that strengthening these local efforts has also been an admirable and important focus of 350’s new campaign.

Lessons from the Front Lines

The good news is that there are important climate-related action campaigns underway all across the globe, some winning impressive victories and all offering up valuable lessons. The Democracy Center recently took an in-depth look at seven climate-related action campaigns around the world, from California to Kosovo, to capture some of that wisdom.

One key lesson is about the importance of moving these fights to the fields of battle where citizen action stands the best chance of winning, and on climate issues the more local we make those battles the stronger we are. Nationally in the U.S. forward action is stalled by a combination of corporate cash and deep polarization. As these fights become more local however, something changes. Instead of being a set of divided interests we become neighbors battling a common threat to local water and to our air.

The coalition fighting coal export plans in Washington State, for example, runs from environmentalists to fisherman to wealthy homeowners all of whom oppose the prospect of eighteen contaminating coal trains a day passing through their communities. The fossil fuel industry needs complex infrastructure – pipelines, trains, and ports – to move its product across the world, and that infrastructure has deep local impacts. Campaigning for the right of communities to decide their own environmental fate can also be one of the most important battles for the planet’s environmental fate as well.

A second lesson is about how we talk about climate issues, speaking both global and local at the same time. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy offer ‘teaching moments’ where public officials in particular (as in the case of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo) can and should help the public connect the dots between local devastation and the dangerous human-caused transformation of the atmosphere. Climate activists need to always combat the voices of climate change denial and work to educate the public. But in the meantime, what is winning climate battles right now is talking about issues that have a much more immediate impact on people’s lives.

In 2010 in California, the billionaire Koch brothers and a pair of Texas oil companies launched a ballot campaign to kill the state’s climate law (Proposition 23). Environmental and social justice groups beat them by more than two-to-one by talking about issues such as child asthma and air pollution created by dirty power plants as well as the need for new ‘green jobs’ in a tough economy. Activists in India stopped construction of a new coal plant by focusing on the threat to local livelihoods in fishing and farming. As we work to spread word about the larger threat to the planet, climate activists need to build political strength by talking about what people already care about now.

Finally, we need to start connecting climate issues to what really matters to us most: our children and grandchildren. Far too often the climate debate descends into discourses about data and exchanges of ideological rhetoric. When I think of climate change what I think of most is my ten-year-old daughter and all of the other fourth graders around the world. Are we really prepared to hand them a fearsome future of ecological unknowns, where Sandys become commonplace and where drought and food shortages spread across the planet? As climate activists we can surely make a case as compelling about this threat to their future as others make about the threats posed to them by national debt.  Groups such as UNICEF and others are already showing us the way.

Let us also not forget in the midst of our U.S. climate battles that it is across the developing world where vulnerability to climate change runs most deep. New York will now debate plans for a multi-billion dollar barrier aimed at holding back the rising sea. But here in Bolivia no infrastructure exists than can hold back the melting of the Andean glaciers, attacking not just the water supply but a part of the nation’s soul as well.

“A Tough Mind”

A half century ago the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed from the pulpit, “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness.” He said that what was needed for the struggle against segregation was the combination of “a tough mind and a tender heart.”  In activism, ‘tough mindedness’ is about being strategic – looking with a clear eye at the powers we need to move and at what will actually move them.  In the climate crisis soft-mindedness on strategy is not an option.

Decades from now our children will look back on this time they will ask how we responded to the climate crisis that was so clearly headed their way. They will not care what summits we attended or how eloquently we voiced our demands.  They won’t care whether our politics were sufficiently radical or moderate. They will judge us by the only thing that will matter then – whether the actions we took in this time made an actual difference in theirs.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center based in San Francisco and Bolivia. For two decades he has supported and trained thousands of citizen activists across five continents. He tweets at @jimshultz.

This article was originally published in YES! Magazine, and was reprinted with permission from the author.

21 Responses to From Doha To Divestment: The Search For A Real Strategy To Combat Climate Change

  1. Dan Ives says:

    This was one of the best articles to appear on this blog in quite some time. I have two points to add:
    1) Besides attacking fossil fuel companies, we simultaneously need to present the clearly superior alternative: renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation. Going on the offensive is important, but I think we need to also need to clearly articulate the benefits of what we seek to replace fossil fuels with.
    2) I wish the author had mentioned the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience. The best example I can think of is the current Tar Sands Action protests that are deliberately and systematically stalling the construction of Keystone XL. That tactic directly inflates the costs of that pipeline, striking a blow right where it counts: Trans Canada’s bottom line. This is exactly what we need to replicate for new coal plants, fracking operations, and coal mines. If protests and civil disobedience can drive up the costs of these projects, it will mean less of them get pursued and also helps renewables compete.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice piece, Jim, but maybe you underestimate the divestment strategy long game. The oil companies can survive any divestment campaigns, but someone had to throw a punch, and good things will come of it. The public will begin to perceive fossil fuels as a rogue industry, indifferent to destroying our future.

    You also didn’t talk much about what is in my opinion the biggest obstacle to change: indifference and false balance reporting from the US mainstream media. While only about a third of Americans disbelieve climate science, the fact that it’s rarely mentioned on television or on the front page sends a powerful message that it’s not that big a deal. This in turn enables bribed Congressmen to continue to block serious action, which effectively shuts down major action from the rest of the world.

    We can target the media, and win. Contact me if you’re interested in the details, at

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Local community action for both mitigation and adaptation is vital and can be initiated by anyone. Another positive sign is the tendency for the young to see themselves as citizens of the planet (Earthlings) first and nationals second – splitting the world into sovereign nations was a very bad mistake, ME

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Yeah, we Yanks are pretty provincial, Merrelyn. It’s gotten worse since I was a kid. Candidates for office seem to be competing for who has the biggest American flag behind him on the podium, or in his website photo.

    An old man told me when I was a kid that back in the old days, flags on the front porch or the back of a truck usually meant KKK (KuKlux Klan). Americans have become coarser in some ways.

  5. Steve says:

    Very good article. Refreshing bluntness.

    Polite, logical, pointed questioning of some very basic assumptions which generally go unexamined on this blog.

    Big government ain’t gonna save our asses on this one. It’s going to print more money and promise everyone the American Dream. Then it’s gonna ramp up funding for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force when it gets ugly. FEMA? — maybe, maybe not.

    The job is to get out the word, and inspire concrete action, now — this is going to be a steadily-deteriorating public health crisis in every sense of the word. It is going to beat the crap out of people. Life is going to get tough and ugly.

    So do people a favor — show them, one-by-one, how to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. If you do that effectively, the next federal election will take care of itself.

  6. Jim Shultz says:

    Thank you all for the thoughtful comments in reply to my article. I do have respect for what is doing on the divestment work. As I point out, it is essential to put a public focus on the role of the fossil fuel industry in the climate crisis and I think the campaign is achieving that. However, from an advocacy point of view I just don’t see the scenario by which the demand for divestment, by itself, causes the industry to do anything different for the reasons I outlined. So the key will be how to turn that energy into the start of a broader set of tactics aimed at the industry. At the Democracy Center we also have a great deal of respect for the campaign against Keystone XL and profiled the campaign at length here:

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It’s not just you lot Mike – look at the negotiations at the COPS, so many angling for their self interest, ME

  8. Steve says:

    Oh yeah, while I’m at it…

    And show them how to start adapting to the inevitable change ahead, physically and emotionally — weatherize their homes, stockpile their savings for very rainy (and dry) days, hedge against extreme weather impacts, move away from dangerous areas, get used to more humble consumption patterns and travel routines, and maybe even become a generator of their own electricity.

    Actually, at this point, personal and community level adaptation measures are not only getting wise, but actually more and more urgent… and adaptation and mitigation, in many instances, go hand-in-hand. Two birds with one stone, as they say.

  9. Mark E says:

    I agree with all, except there is one issue the world’s political systems are even more ill-equipped to solve than climate change: the addiction to nonstop economic growth.

    Whatever ecological gains we can make deploying clean-tech will be erased by nonstop economic growth. While a crash program for clean tech deployment is long overdue, we should also be talking about fact that at best it can buy us time to conquer our nonstop economic growth addiction. Otherwise it’s all for naught.

  10. Omega Centauri says:

    I feel silly posting Rah, Rah, right-on. But this is something we need to do a lot more of. I don’t think it is an either/or proposition, we can go the local route, and the disinvestment route. Eventually I expect we will add consumer boycotts, either of fossil fueled corps, or perhaps of those headquartered in knuckle-dragging countries/states to the list. Who participates in which method should depend upon personality and opportunity.

  11. paul magnus magnus says:

    Huge flaws in LNG export report

  12. paul magnus magnus says:
    100 leading medical scientist call for halt to fracking for export

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    These are clearly good proposals, but capitalism as a whole must be the target. This is so because the fossil fuel business is the very backbone of capitalism, being the greatest repository of ‘wealth’ on the planet, and because capitalism, with its ethos of insatiable growth and profit maximisation decreed by law, is the root cause of all our ecological, economic and social woes. As well as divestment we must stop consuming all non-essential items, or as many as possible, which will kill capitalism by denying it the growth that it, like a cancer tumour, needs to survive. Of course these actions will be outlawed, so we can expect violent repression even if we pursue totally non-violent ends through pacific means.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The MSM is a propaganda system that serves its capitalist owners, and will be our enemy until the end of time, which may be closer than we dread.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If we stop economic growth now, much of the planet remains in dire poverty. That is immoral, so the rich must be dispossessed of their stolen loot, all tens of trillions of it, and it must be redistributed so all can live with a decent sufficiency of the good things of life. We in the rich world can downsize to the lifestyle of the 1930s, hardly a burden, and keep our useful high technology in health and education and welfare, to boot. How to get the rich to turn over their ill-gotten gains is the great Gordian puzzle.

  16. wili says:

    I agree with the part about reducing the wealth of the best off, but there is a limit to how much we can increase the well being of the poorest.

    Even more deeply immoral than leaving masses in dire poverty is depriving all future humans and most other species a livable planet.

  17. Mike Roddy says:

    We used to have actual reporters on television, Mulga- Cronkite, Brinkley, Wallace etc. They have been replaced by the “talent”, who dare not speak out against the corporate state.

  18. Mark E says:

    Perhaps its like signing a petition. Most NCOs run petition campaigns to (A) educate, (B) recruit, and (C) solicit funds from the signers. Everyone who tries to remove the sand from their neighbors’ eye (divestment activists) will hopefully be moved to first change their consumer habits by removing the board from their own eye (their own fossil fuel consumption). There’s no motivator for personal change like indignation at injustice, and someone to blame it on. It’s a brilliant campaign.

  19. Thomas Rodd says:

    Thanks for this good post. Presumably the divestment campaign, if it is taken up by lots of college students, will throw up some geniuses who will have great new ideas and a lot of people who get the issue in a way they didn’t before. Some people seem to think that getting boards of trustees to divest is not going to succeed at all, in most cases, and if that is so, then what that will mean for those students who get into the campaign and work on it to no direct avail is something that needs serious thought. Lots of us older people have seen the bitter and counterproductive things that can come out of failure and frustration. More broadly, McKibben’s statement about needing an enemy seems maybe a little simplistic and naiive to this old nonviolent/political activist. Without going into all of the reasons for this feeling, I am going to quote Pogo for an insight that I know is shared among many readers of this great blog: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Ultimately, it’s my feeling again, the only hope for real success in the climate policy arena is the alignment of many — most — of the most evil and greedy forces and groupings on the planet on the side of decarbonizing the energy economy. So how does that square with possibly too-facile rhetoric about “enemies?” Pete Seeger changed the message on his banjo from “this machine kills fascists” to something about this machine draws a circle of love around evil and transforms it. Just a few thoughts. I intend to be at the President’s Day event in DC. Has there been any talk here about that?

  20. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    Leaving most of the planet’s population destitute (including burgeoning populations of the poor, low-paid and immiserated in the rich world)guarantees, I believe, unending global war and suffering. The only alternatives to a fair distribution of the world’s wealth is chaos, or genocide.

  21. jeff mclean says:

    We must stop creating a false dichotomy around the concept of ‘self interest’ (it’s either your interests OR the environments….the two are integrally linked) – ‘self interest’ is not bad (but it can be)
    Self interest is the driving force of all human behaviour – including getting the required action to solve / slow climate change impacts.
    BUT we need to help people realise that we need to operate from a re conceived ‘ENLIGHTENED SELF INTEREST’ that involves self interested (but not greedy) long term, broad systemic thinking, – not just ‘Myopic Self Interest’ which is narrow, greedy and short term.

    It is hard for me to conceive of anything that has more ‘self interest’ in it than saving the environment that we (and many other species) require for survival.

    If interested in seeing my ‘Enlightened Self Interest’ model plse email me at