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Experts: Divestment has limited economic impact, but a big reputational punch

A great outlet for college student idealism, divestment campaigns against fossil fuel companies don’t create financial hardship for them .   

That’s the opinion of experts at Oxford University, Stanford University and Harvard University — and, even more significantly, a leader of the divestment community. But there’s agreement that the campaigns can cause the companies serious reputational headaches.

Highpoints of David Gelles’ New York Times commentary, “Never Underestimate the Power of Shame”:

“For all its focus on stock holdings, the true impact of divestment campaigns has nothing to do with a company’s investment base, share price or credit worthiness. [An Oxford University study] concluded that even if every pension fund and university endowment joined the movement and sold its fossil fuel stock, the effect would be negligible.

“…But that does not mean divestment campaigns have no consequences. What they do best is good-old fashioned public shaming.”

“Ben Caldedecott, who researches energy and climate change as director of Oxford University’s Stranded Assets Program: ‘It becomes much harder for stigmatized businesses to recruit good people, to influence policy and, occasionally, to raise capital.’ “

Gelles also quotes  Frank Wolak, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford: ” ‘Divestment comes at the expense of meaningful action. It will do nothing to reduce global greenhouse emissions.”

And Robert Stavins, director of the Environment Economics Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government : ” ‘The message from the divestment movement is fundamentally misguided.’ He contends that the problem is not energy companies: it is an economy that remains dependent on fossil fuel production and consumption.”

Most telling of all is the opinion of Bill McKibben, whose organization, is at the epicenter of the activist divestment movement: “The goal is not to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. We can’t do that with divestment alone. But we can politically bankrupt them.”