Oil industry targets "idiotic and useless" divestment campaigns

Industry says the divestment movement has little support and only hurts those who divest. So why has it launched a PR campaign to fight it? And what's with the video of a man dating an oil barrel?

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  1. Earlier this month, in a coup for the fossil fuel divestment movement, the New School announced it was dumping all fossil fuel investments, citing its commitment to fight climate change.
  2. A week later, faculty at the University of British Columbia voted for divestment as well. And in the fall, even the heirs of the Rockefeller oil fortune announced they were in the process of divesting, pointing to both "moral and economic" motivations.
  3. But as the divestment movement picks up steam, the fossil fuel industry wants everyone to know it's pointless and self-sabotaging - or "an idiotic and useless movement that we're bored of already" as John Baldwin, managing director at a UK natural gas consultancy, put it on Twitter.
  4. When 350.org organized Global Divestment Day last weekend, oil defenders mocked their efforts. A communications initiative of the Independent Petroleum Association of America called "Divestment Facts" first popped up on Twitter a few days before Global Divestment Day, and posted photos of sparsely attended protests over the weekend...
  5. ...and sad little bicycles.
  6. While Linda Rozett, a communications strategist at the American Petroleum Institute (API), poked fun at weather-wary protestors with an API cartoon from 2013.
  7. Of course, that's not how divestment advocates saw it. The Fossil Free project declared Global Divestment Day "a massive turning point in the divestment movement," counting more than 450 events in 60 countries over the weekend.
  8. Industry and activists might disagree about the divestment movement's popularity, but critics say even if it gains momentum, it makes no difference to the oil industry. A report commissioned and funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America concludes that colleges that dump fossil fuel stocks will only be hurting their own endowments, and that prior divestment campaigns, most notably the campaign against Apartheid South Africa, have had little impact on targeted companies (pg. 19).
  9. But with current volatility in oil prices, divestment could make more financial sense than the industry acknowledges. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway quietly sold off its shares of Exxon Mobil in the fourth quarter. No grandstanding about climate change ethics accompanied the move.
  10. Activists do agree, however, that mass divestment by colleges is unlikely to hurt the industry's bottom line.
  11. "It's not a financially targeted campaign," says Jenny Marienau of 350.org. Instead, divestment is a largely symbolic act. "When we divest we’re saying we no longer want to be complicit in the destruction of our world.” The idea that divestment is a financial strategy is a popular misunderstanding of the movement, according to divestment advocate Alex Suber.
  12. But how much are symbolic actions worth?
  13. "One major problem is that symbolic actions often substitute for truly effective actions by allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we are doing something meaningful about a problem when we are not," writes Robert Stavins, director of Harvard's Environmental Economics Program.
  14. On this point, Benjamin Franta, a physics PhD candidate at Harvard disagrees: "symbolic actions can...be powerfully effective in realms of politics, law, economic policy, and other realms of human social organization."
  15. And the power of symbolic action could very well be at the crux of this dispute.
  16. Which might be why a PR firm with links to the oil industry took the time to tell you the story of Joe, who had to sit naked in the dark after breaking up with his girlfriend Fossil Fuels.
  17. Breaking Up With Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do
  18. To which 350.org responded with this parody remix, which totally agrees you should go all the way with your barrel of oil girlfriend.
  19. UPDATE: An earlier version of this article referred to Divestment Facts as an initiative of the American Petroleum Institute. It's actually the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
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