Fossil-Fuel Divestment
Our free-enterprise system is facing a legitimacy crisis, especially among the young.

Activist Bill McKibben


Stanley Kurtz

McKibben understands that divestment by itself won’t achieve this, since eager investors would snap up any stock sold off by colleges. His real goal is to delegitimize the carbon-fuel industry, thereby creating a mass movement with enough political power to bottle up most of our fossil energy resources, unused.

McKibben is a rock star. After his Rolling Stone piece went viral, he launched his 21-city “Do the Math” tour, selling out venues usually packed with fans of the latest pop sensation. Indeed, McKibben’s followers are largely the same 20-something crowd that crams those concerts. His triumphant tour began the day after the 2012 election. So just as gobsmacked conservatives were mulling the need to win back the culture, McKibben was beating them to the punch, redoubling his already massive millennial following while supplying it with the latest leftist political and cultural project. If you want to know where millennial anti-capitalism lives, it’s here.

The other figure of note in the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is Naomi Klein. Long an inspiration for the anti-corporate-globalization movement that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street, Klein has been dubbed by The New Yorker “the most visible and influential figure on the American Left — what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were 30 years ago.” While agitating for reparations for slavery and colonialism in 2009, Klein was pulled in a new direction by a trip to the United Nations Durban II conference on racism. There she discovered that the reparations movement had dropped its polarizing label and had seized instead upon “climate debt” as a backdoor way of advancing global wealth redistribution. Since then, Klein has argued that, on a wide range of issues, hard-left movements can march forward far more effectively under banners of green than of red.

Drawn into climate politics by the reparations movement, Klein formed an alliance with McKibben and She joined the group’s board in 2011, and worked closely with McKibben to launch the divestment campaign. McKibben invokes Klein in his Rolling Stone piece, and Klein joined McKibben for a portion of his “Do the Math” roadshow. The Klein-McKibben partnership signals an ambitious new political strategy — a joining together of the environmentalist and the anti-capitalist Left, Occupiers and climate warriors battling as one.

Consult the work of McKibben and Klein, and you’re struck by a divergence between their broader writings and the framing of the divestment campaign. The conceit of McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece, like the “Do the Math” tour it spawned, is that three simple numbers (the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit, 565 gigatons of safely burnable fossil fuels, and 2,795 gigatons of known fossil-fuel reserves) suffice not only to prove that 80 percent of the world’s reserves must remain unburned, but to identify oil companies as the globe’s true enemies. Simple, incontrovertible mathematics supposedly dictates both a goal of political action and a target for assault.

Fond of cloaking his complex moral and political choices in the appearance of physical certainty, McKibben has pointedly withheld several steps of his not-so-mathematical argument from his Rolling Stone readers. Yet those arguments are all in his books, where he turns out to be gunning for far more than cooler temperatures and lower ocean levels. He doesn’t merely want to save the world; he wants to change it, in ways that would be sure to put off many of those now signing on to his campaign. McKibben and Klein hope to radically transform our society and our economy, and it’s tough to say which is more disturbing: that their core followers understand this, or that their latest recruits do not.

In tomorrow’s installment of this article, we’ll have a look at the world McKibben and Klein are working for, after which, in part 3, we will circle back to the poor excuse for a debate over divestment that has played out so far on campuses and in the media. It’s time to turn the college divestment movement into an occasion for a serious discussion about the direction of this country.

 Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy CenterThis is the first installment of a three-part article.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.