The perverse irony isn’t lost on Bill McKibben.

On the one hand, America’s colleges and universities prepare the nation’s young people for their future. On the other hand, those same institutions invest in the fossil fuel companies that are profiting—enormously—from the carbon that’s going to wreck the climate over the next 60 or 70 years and beyond (If you didn’t catch it, that’s basically those same young people’s lifetimes).

So, McKibben is calling for divestiture—and he’s doing it in a smart way.

The latest campaign, Go Fossil Free, is modeled after anti-apartheid campaigns on college campuses in the 1980s. The campaign calls on schools to drop their pension fund and endowment stock holdings in the 200 publicly-traded companies that hold the majority of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves. As of today, students on at least 210 campuses in North America are seeking divestment, and the list is growing. Churches and at least one city, Seattle, have gotten on board too.

What makes this campaign so effective? has created a powerful narrative: they’re playing offense by naming specific villains; they’re drawing a moral line in the sand and inviting powerful people to stand on the right side of that line; and they’re focusing on clear-cut, manageable tools for building solutions, tools that wield enough symbolic power to shift the politics of the issue.

Talking Points for Going Fossil Free

Name the villains. “With the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.” — Naomi Klein

Draw a moral line in the sand, invite people with clout to the right side: “We can’t continue to profit from wrecking God’s creation—not through our pensions, endowments, or personal investments. As Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.'” — Jim Antal, United Church of Christ

Hand climate heroes simple, effective tools: “Stigmatization is key. This is the tobacco industry of our day. Logically if you’re going to green your campus why wouldn’t you green your portfolio?” — Bill McKibben

Name the villains

Bill McKibben put it bluntly: “We’re going after the fossil fuel companies.”

There are lots of reasons to name villains. Most memorable stories have one—and climate change, a threat that is largely abstract and faceless, needs one!

Plus, when we don’t name a villain, we leave the story open to interpretation. In fact, everybody who uses oil—and that’s everybody—can wind up feeling villainzed. As fossil fuel consumers, we may feel guilty, trapped, or defensive. But as McKibben reminds us, it’s not that we don’t each contribute to climate change, of course we do. But, “the fossil-fuel companies use their riches to warp our democracy.” It’s the fossil fuel industry that is actively blocking progress on clean energy solutions.

By naming them as the primary roadblock, we empower everyone else to hold them accountable.

And, to be clear, messages about villains can range from forceful to polite. For example, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has called for divestment of the city’s pension funds from fossil fuels, striking a matter of fact tone about climate impacts and the financial arguments for divestment. (According to the city’s finance director, Seattle has $17.6 million invested in Chevron and ExxonMobil.)

Another important side-effect: By naming villains, we send a signal to champions of climate solutions—the climate heroes—that we have their backs.

Draw a moral line in the sand—invite people with clout to the right side

The campaign makes clear climate disruption’s moral dimensions—and that’s powerful. is smart to frame this in terms of college students’ lifetimes (leaving polar bears and “future generations” out of it.)

But they don’t stop there. What’s key here is that they’re inviting people with clout to stand with them on the right side of the line.

Moral arguments about climate change are nothing new, but we haven’t always put people in powerful positions on the spot, publicly—in this case, those holding the purse strings at respected institutions. The point is that calls for divestment require prominent people to grapple with the morality of climate change. This can change the politics of the issue, much the way campus demands for apartheid divestment did in the ‘80s.

The beauty of this tactic is that it isn’t indicting the decision makers at these institutions.  Instead, students and alumni are asking these leaders to partner with them in breaking out of a system that traps all of us and contradicts our shared values. In other words, they’re not saying “you’re the bad guy,” they’re inviting the schools to do the right thing and stop giving money to the villains.

Hand climate heroes simple, effective tools

Polling shows that Americans see climate disruption with their own eyes and they’re hungry for leadership on solutions. But there’s confusion about the appropriate response. And there’s well-founded cynicism that we’ll find the political will for bold solutions that can free us from fossil fuel dependence.

Naming the villain helps overcome these challenges, by focusing on solutions that are manageable but that nonetheless represent leverage toward bigger goals. The idea is that if there’s a roadblock to progress of any kind, pour all your energy into taking it out. The campaign identifies fossil fuel companies as the roadblock and divestment as a way to dismantle it. In the process there’s potential to shift the conversation about climate change.

Ideally divestment on campuses leads to government action. But this campaign doesn’t overreach or ask the impossible. It’s not asking us to boycott oil or stop driving our cars. We couldn’t do it. It’s not asking us to lob Molotov cocktails at oil company executives. We wouldn’t. It’s not even asking for government action.

It’s far simpler and more manageable than all that. Campus divestment campaigns are hyper-local, concrete actions with crystal-clear objectives. Problem: Your college or alma mater is supporting the fossil fuel villains. Solution: Ask them to stop. You and your school can be heroes. (If they don’t budge, make a stink about it.)

This is empowering, because as individuals we can’t possibly shoulder all the responsibility or take on the fossil fuel industry, we don’t have the clout. But we can take on the responsibility—or moral duty—to hold the institutions we’re associated with to account. Those institutions do have some clout, both financially and symbolically, and they have reputations to uphold. is handing out tools that transform what has seemed like an intractable problem.

The simplicity and focus of all these campaign elements makes for a powerful climate storyline. It’s one I think climate communicators should emulate and amplify.

Thanks to Sightline contributor Shannon Loew for sharing his thoughts on the Go Fossil Free campaign. If you’re a Climate Access member, you can also listen to a recording of a recent climate messaging panel discussion where I talked about the effective elements of this campaign with Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and Joe Romm of Center for American Progress.

January 11, 2013