Young people were always the true anti-establishment rebels. Kicking against the authority of their parents. Questioning the norms of earlier generations. Challenging vested interests. But in the era of Brexit and Trump, this has changed. Anti-establishment sentiment is now associated with older, working class voters. Young people, instead, seem to be choosing the status quo options: Remain and Hillary Clinton. So what has happened to the anti-establishment activism of the young?
With climate change, young people still reveal their rebellious streak. And, arguably, with good reason. If, in a few decades’ time, average global temperatures rise to more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the youth of today will be the ones affected by frequent extreme weather events. Climate change is the ultimate symbol of intergenerational unfairness, as older generations burn fossil fuels, warming the planet to the detriment of future generations. It is seen by some young activists as an example of corporate irresponsibility, with major fossil fuel producers, despite knowing the environmental impact of their product, continuing to pollute the planet. And, although most governments around the world have plans to cut emissions, for the idealistic young, the progress is too slow.
One of the forms taken by youth climate activism is divestment campaigns. The idea behind divestment is that activists force major institutions, such as universities, to sell all their shares in fossil fuel companies. This then starves the company of capital for future investments by reducing their share prices. There is no available, or cost-effective, financing for new drilling. And, so the theory goes, carbon-intensive coal, oil, and gas are left in the ground. The phenomenon started in the US, but it has already crossed the Atlantic, with some major UK institutions, like Kings College London and Newcastle University, having divested in the past year.
These are not new tactics. Similar campaigns have been prosecuted against tobacco companies. Researchers from the Smith School at the University of Oxford have looked at how effective they are. Taken on their own terms, the answer seems to be ‘not very’. Only a tiny proportion of the capital raised by fossil fuel producers comes from universities and pension funds. There is also plenty of demand from ‘neutral’ or ‘unethical’ investors for the divested shares. What’s more, by removing the voices of responsible investors, some shareholder pressure for a more climate-aware business strategy is lost.
This is not to say that investors shouldn’t be wary of climate risk in their portfolios. There is now strong evidence of the danger of ‘carbon bubbles’. The Carbon Tracker project estimates that between 60-80% of the reserves of publicly listed companies must be left untouched, if dangerous levels of warming are to be avoided. Assuming government policy is introduced to achieve this, then fossil fuel investment starts to look very risky. This process is already happening. Both the UK and France have this year announced a date for phasing out coal from their electricity supplies.
Some defend divestment campaigns on the grounds that they help create a ‘fossil fuel stigma’. This may cost companies new contracts, deter prospective employees, or scare off potential customers. It may even lead to governments introducing new fossil fuel regulations. If institutions with the moral force of the Church of England (which divested in July 2015) refuse to invest in fossil fuels, it sends a powerful signal.
But this effect may not be so straightforward. Yes, the public is sympathetic. A clear majority is concerned about climate change – recent government polling suggests this could be over 70%. But the way the message is expressed, and the messenger, will not resonate widely. And in this case, the messengers are radical left-wing students engaged in protests on their university campuses.
So could divestment in fact be helping to stigmatise action on climate change? It seems like it could be, certainly amongst the most sceptical group that needs to be convinced: conservatives. Research by Climate Outreach has shown how radical, left-wing, anti-growth climate activism alienates conservatives. Climate activism, they argue, too often fails to speak to conservative values like responsibility, integrity, and family security. Seen in this light, divestment campaigns could actually be undermining efforts to tackle climate change.
The young rebels have a good cause. Responsible investment, which takes account of climate risk, could effectively limit carbon emissions. But they should reconsider their tactics if they are to emulate the success of their older counterparts.
Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue. This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment?