Monthly Archives: May 2014

How to tap latent conservative support for global warming policy

Both last month’s Senate Climate Talkathon and Tom Steyer’s $100 million dollarpledge to back environment-friendly candidates indicate the same thing: Democrats are getting serious about global warming again. But even when Democrats have managed to close ranks behind previous legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey, Republicans have stymied them. Can the left forge a coalition to tackle the problem?

The environment was once a bipartisan issue. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act were all passed with bipartisan support, as was legislation strengthening those acts in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the environment has become increasingly divisive. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the decrease in support for environmental protection is not only very recent but also one-sided:

Despite that decline, Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant” and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, haven’t we seen an action?

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.

In 1971’s Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI laid out a religious case for protecting the environment, using the language of responsibility, duty to future generations, and purity—in other words, the conservative framing under Feinberg and Willer’s standards:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation … thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable …. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

In his 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” E.O. Wilson showed how to use the religious framing in defense of the environment:

You have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity. Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living nature—is in deep trouble.

The environmental movement has stumbled because it has not framed the issue as Wilson and Paul VI did. A 2012 study by Matthew C. Nisbet, Ezra M. Markowitz, and John E. Kotcher found that climate campaigns overwhelming frame the issue in terms of harm and care, fairness, and oppression of marginalized groups. These frames fall into what Feinberg and Willer would consider left-wing frames, alienating conservatives.

Adopting a more conservative framing wouldn’t lead to liberals winning more elections. More likely, moderate Republican and centrist thought leaders could make green policy a bipartisan initiative of the sort that was common during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. days. There are already right-leaning pro-environment groups, like Atlanta’s Green Tea Coalition and Ducks Unlimited. That’s unlikely to be enough to bridge the divide. Because people are more likely to respond to arguments made by someone within their community than outside of it, progress depends on more Republican voices.

But Republican thought leaders and policymakers have abandoned the environment in droves. ThinkProgress calculates that 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny anthropogenic global warming. Among the general public, 26 percent of adults don’t believe global warming is real (although only 11 percent of Democrats do, versus 46 percent of Republicans and an astonishing 70 percent of Tea Partiers). Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont,argues that there has been a concerted effort among right-leaning elites to downplay the environmental issue. “Partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change,” she writes. “Party sorting seems to occur only as citizens acquire information and become familiar with elite cues.” This helps explain the lack of political movement, despite evidence that conservative voters are concerned about the degradation of the environment.

Guber notes the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo arguing that the environment was the issue on which Republicans were most vulnerable. “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” Luntz wrote. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” Funders took Luntz’s idea and ran with it—with impressive success. A Drexel University study released in December bolsters the idea of a concerted denial campaign led by elites. The survey found that the climate-denial movement consists of 91 organizations supported by 140 primarily conservative foundations.

“The Republicans and (at least a large part of) the business community are against doing anything about climate change, because doing something about it would mean government intervention in the economy, which is ideologically bad but also having tangible and real economic costs on certain segments of the business world,” Benjamin Radcliff, a professor of politics at Notre Dame, told me.

Regulating greenhouse gases would hurt some big businesses. If IPCC estimates are correct, some 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain unused. That presents a risk for companies like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil—companies whose donations give them an outsize influence on the political process. Recently, Exxon said it is “highly unlikely” that governments would implement policies to significantly reduce emissions. (Just to be sure, the company has donated millions to climate denial groups.)

Tom Steyer’s example aside, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page find “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” And elites are less likely to be concerned about climate change than other citizens. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright have found that the issue ranks below “the loss of traditional values,” budget deficits, and inflation among policy priorities for the wealthy. While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment (the difference between “expanded” and “cut back” was -8) the public strongly favored increasing spending (+29).

Internationally, the environment isn’t so polarized. Right-leaning politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have embraced the environment, and Angela Merkel won reelection in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy in favor of renewables. And within the U.S., some Democratic governors in red states have had success pursuing environmental issues. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Dave Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a reelection margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country, including 66 percent approval among Republicans.

But at the national level in the United States, environmental progress has been stymied by elites with a vested interest in fostering denial and the economic means to do so. This is not an easily surmountable challenge, but the polling reveals that underlying support offers hope for moving climate-change policy forward; and unlike hot-button issues like abortion or gay rights, the policy solutions are well agreed-upon. Yet the environmental movement has not helped itself by framing the issue in terms that appeal mostly to the converted. Activists will find more success if they focus on promoting sanctity and responsibility, showing how protecting the environment is economically beneficial and leaving a legacy for future generations.

Originally published on The Atlantic.

The real secret to making it as a writer: Be fabulously wealthy before you even start

In a recent Salon article, Noah Berlatsky argued that to be a successful writer, while one might need “work ethic, knowledge, skill, perseverance… none of them is as important as the one, single most important thing. Which would be luck.”

Berlatsky’s piece suffers from what Daniel Dennett calls deepities: “A proposition that seems both important and true — and profound — but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.” That is, if we take Berlatsky’s assertion as he intended it, hyperbolically, it is banal: We all know that luck affects us in all parts of our life. And if we take it at face value, it is manifestly false. Does Berlatsky really believe that luck is more important than work ethic, knowledge, skill and perseverance?

That’s a hard case to make, although it does correctly note that those latter qualities alone (work ethic, etc.), while to varying degrees necessary for success, are too often insufficient. So Berlatsky wasn’t wrong there, he just picked the wrong culprit. The real problem in writing isn’t luck, it’s money.

Reading, writing and thinking are all tasks that are nearly impossible to cultivate while performing manual labor. As Plato first noted, when discussing education, “sleep and exercise are unpropitious to learning,” and therefore students should avoid intense exercise as they pursue educational endeavors. Writing is what Veblen would call “conspicuous consumption,” a task primarily done by a “leisure class” uninhibited by manual labor.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, “under existing conditions, a few men who have had private means of their own, such as Byron, Shelley, Browning, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and others, have been able to realise their personality more or less completely. Not one of these men ever did a single day’s work for hire. They were relieved from poverty.” Because Byron and Baudelaire were free from the need to perform physical labor, they could invest their time in culture. In contrast, the poor, “having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.” The luxury of comfort is still denied the poor and working class and it’s difficult to read Shakespeare after hours of drudgery. Far easier to drink a beer and watch the game. In his book, “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight MacDonald notes that “the great cultures of the past have been elite affairs.”

In a recent interview with Longform magazine, New Yorker staff writer Evan Ratliff said, “I don’t think it’s feasible to work a full-time job and be able to do this type of reporting … it really requires dedicated time.” And time, as we all know, is money. Success at writing means taking unpaid internships, low-paid fellowships or writing almost for free for years.

Mark Twain once said that success in writing requires one to “write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” To do such writing (while paying off debts from Columbia Journalism School) without some side source of income, means, most likely, coming from an upper middle-class or affluent background with parents who can bankroll you. I’ll state the obvious: There aren’t many poor writers. How could there be? How does one practice writing in abject poverty?

This dynamic pervades even socialist thought. Gramsci, the poorest of Marx’s early 20th century interpreters, only wrote a sustained historical and theoretical critique when he was imprisoned. And it’s no coincidence that the great expositor of working class misery, Engels, was the son of a wealthy capitalist. The working class had neither the time, nor education, to consider their own plight. It’s no coincidence that the greatest thinker to address capitalism, Karl Marx, died destitute and was sustained only by patronage of Engels. Sadly, as the Marxist tradition grew divorced from the working class, its expositors grew increasingly obtuse, with Adorno, Della Volpe and Althusser increasingly unreadable. While Marx intended his work to be accessible to the working class, the later Marxists seemed to have rather the opposite intentions. As Perry Anderson notes, “the whole tradition swung increasingly away towards bourgeois culture.”

The “great thinkers” of the past were, for the most part, were those wealthy enough to think and be heard — Montesquieu, Smith, de Tocqueville, Keynes, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Freud, Darwin, Huxley. Pick a thinker, and you’ll find a wealthy family behind them. Much the same is true today.

Originally published on Salon.

Young people are rising up around the world, but not in America

Last weekend, a Maybach limousine pulled up to the Venetian casino and resort in Las Vegas. Out stepped Sheldon Adelson, billionaire Republican donor, for his four-day Republican convention. Donors and politicians, from Chris Christie to Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, shook hands and exchanged promises among the gleaming lights of the most gaudy city in America.

It’s a story that we’ve heard so often it’s beaten us into a stupor: wealthy businessmen sliding their arms around our politicians and co-opting the political process. It’s not even surprising anymore. But it should be; it should piss us off.

Already long gone are the heady days when thousands gathered in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and around the country. The leaves have since settled and in a lot of ways things are back to normal. We have crushing student debt at the tune of $1 trillion, education is unaffordable, there is a lot of work to do but (paradoxically) few jobs and new policies that could help our generation are languishing in Congress. Myopic politicians are more concerned with the next election than doing what’s right for our futures.

“Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

So ended one of the most revolutionary political documents ever penned. And while the world has seen myriad revolutions — most recently in Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine — revolutionary activity in Western Europe and the United States has never been sustained. So where is the revolution to enact change and usher our generation into a better tomorrow? Where is the battle cry to secure our future?

Jesse Yeh looks out across the UC Berkeley campus. He does just about anything to avoid debt, using the university’s library instead of buying textbooks, scrounging for free food at campus events and occasionally skipping meals. Image Credit: AP

If complaints were kindling, our generation would have a bonfire going. We will likely see slower economic growth, more unemployment and greater inequality than our parents. For all the social progress, retrograde attitudes remain powerful. The government feels more and more an extension of the free market, rather than a bulwark against it. And global warming, still denied by large swaths of the population, threatens not just economic growth, but also ecological collapse. Our current course could cause the earth to warm by as many as six degrees Celsius, which would create millions of refugees, stir up conflict and dramatically increase the incidence of natural disasters.

Why, then, have we not launched a sustained, revolutionary movement to wrest back control and set us on a better course? The most prominent movement, Occupy Wall Street, produced much in the way of slogans. But compared with the Tea Party or the leftist movements of the ’40s and ’60s, it has done little to change policy.

Here are three reasons we have not seen a revolution, even though it’s sorely needed:

Money has become political power.

One important factor is that economic power increasingly influences the political sphere. A recent Demos report, Stacked Deck, finds that Adelson and his wife gave more money in 2012 to influence elections than the combined contributions of the residents of 12 states.

Research by Larry Bartels finds that individuals with higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes than the poor and middle class. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings — in politics, money talks. A recent study finds that, sure enough, members of Congress are far more likely to meet with donors than constituents.

Sheldon Adelson listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Saturday in Las Vegas. Several possible GOP presidential candidates gathered as Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, looks for a new favorite to help in the 2016 race for the White House. Image Credit: AP

When money talks, it doesn’t speak for us.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the wealthy don’t have the same priorities as the rest of us. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright find that the very wealthy are far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing or shelter,” and that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

These divergences, combined with the fact that the wealthy are far more likely to be politically active because they are more likely to see results, tilts the economy toward the interests of the wealthy.

The quintessential example is the minimum wage, which 78% of Americans believe should be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line.” However, only 40% of the wealthy agree — and the minimum remains stubbornly below the poverty line.

The wrong narrative has taken hold.

Money also shapes narratives and ideology. Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, argued that “those who believe that a people … can be induced to live by reason alone … are dreaming of a fairy tale.”

We see the world through our ideology and what’s taken hold is the idea that the free market will give us what we deserve and that’s fair. But it’s not fair. This ideology often does not reflect the interests of the poor, but rather those who shape the narrative: those with money and power. A young economist, also known as Karl Marx, noted in 1848, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” If we’re not here to help create an equal and fair society, then what the hell are we doing?

To see the power of wealth in shaping perspectives, we can turn to new research by Andrew J. Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee. Compared with those who did not win the lottery, the researchers find that lottery winners in the U.K. are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right after winning and believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. The rich are biased toward believing that the current society is just (called the “just world hypothesis”).

To take one example of how much our narratives have changed, it’s worth remembering that Americans once believed in high taxes on estates to ensure high levels of opportunity and competition. Americans did not want to live in a Jane Austen society of wealthy and snooty aristocrats and prided itself on the fact that the wealthy had earned their wealth.

Lamenting on the death of this model, Richard Hofstadter wrote, “Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.” The Waltons and Kochs, parasites living off their parent’s work rather than creating their own fortunes, are examples of how the old story of the “self-made man” is increasingly out of date. Yet it sticks around because politicians keep repeating it, members of the media keep broadcasting it and suddenly we’re all talking as if a tale worthy of Hollywood is somehow fact.

There’s another disturbing narrative that’s closely linked to the others: economic growth comes from the wealthy (“job creators”) and growth is the palliative for inequality. While the former was always dubious, there was a time when economic growth was broadly shared (see chart). However, the ’90s and 2000s produced ample growth that accrued largely to the richest members of society. The wealthiest 1% have also accrued 95% of the benefits of the current recovery. These benefits aren’t serving the wealthy because they work harder, but rather because they own assets (like stocks) and the Bush tax cuts dramatically increased the returns to such assets. There was a time when the old story that economic growth benefited everyone was true, but it no longer reflects reality.

It’s time for a new story.

How we’re going to get there.

Sadly, until recently there has been no real resistance to the power of money and false narratives. Democrats and Republicans have generally adhered to a neo-liberal consensus that government is bad and markets are good. It was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who declared the “end of big government.”

Few politicians are willing to argue that government is good, that the social safety net needs to be expanded, not contracted, and that “freer markets” may not solve our most grievous social ills. Since the rise of “New Democrats,” who are happy to shred social security and Medicare in the name of deficits and are unwilling to take a stand on climate change, there has been no real “left” in the country.

Traditional bastions of leftist resistance, like unions, found little support from the Carter and Clinton White House. Regulations in the public interest, like those enacted to prevent another Great Depression or protect the environment, were rolled back with equal fervor by Democratic and Republican administrations. Young people realize this, and Pew Data show we are far more skeptical of the idea that there are major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.

We are disenchanted with concentrated economic and political power and feel, rightly, that alone, they can do nothing. We find few politicians representing our interests, and almost none outside the grip of economic elites. We are bombarded with false narratives, but have yet to see a new one take hold. This very alienation from the channels of power only makes our movements more ineffectual — we have many Sartres, but few Debses or Naders actually fighting for change.

Image Credit: AP

It’s time for a different narrative.

The story we’re going to build and spread using the world’s greatest communications platform questions the idea that we can have unlimited growth in a finite world. This story will remind us that the engine of economic growth has always been a strong and open middle class. This story will reject racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia in favor of an open and tolerant society. This story is a uniquely Millennial story.

It is our story. It is the story of a generation that will be worse than its parents. It is the story of a generation looking for jobs where few exist. It is the story of a generation burdened by debts we did not create. It is the story of a generation on the verge of taking over. This here is planting season.

We will have to fight to make our story heard. We will have to mobilize to make it happen. We have occupied parks; let us occupy statehouses, campuses and the media. For too long we have, in the words of John Mayer, waited on the world to change. But, as Frederick Douglass noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We cannot simply imagine a better world, we must make it happen.

It begins with a new story.

Originally published on Policymic.

Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 

 

This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

The oil industry is not only hurting the environment — it’s a bad investment, too

Environmental activists have long gone after oil companies for contributing to global warming. But a new campaign has sought to hurt the industry where it really hurts: the bottom line.

We know that we have to dramatically slow carbon emissions if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change. A conservative estimate is that two-thirds of extant fossil fuels must stay in the ground. These would then become “stranded assets” that oil companies will never be able to extract. And that has provided an opening to a broad-based divestment campaign, which is making a persuasive economic case against investing in Exxon and its Big Oil ilk.

As Brett Fleishman, a senior analyst at 350.org, told me, “There’s too much carbon embedded in fossil fuel reserves to burn. Those reserves are on the balance sheets of fossil fuel companies. Those companies are valued by those balance sheets. Therefore those valuations are incorrect.”

The divestment campaign seeks to enlighten investors about these shaky assets underlying the oil industry’s wealth. College students have taken aim at their university endowments, with Divest Harvard organizing divestment groups at more than 400 campuses. Towns, cities, and religious organizations have also promised to divest from fossil fuels. The action is even hotter in Europe, where financial services companies Rabobank and Storebrand have already divested from the industry, as have Swedish and Norwegian pension funds.

Institutional investors, even those that are not particularly socially conscious, are taking notice.MSCI — one of the world’s top investment analysis firms — called divestment one the top trends of 2014 to watch out for. Bloomberg recently released a tool to aid companies in assessing their portfolio’s exposure to climate change.

Of course, the whole campaign hinges on the premise that those fossil fuels will remain in the ground. As The Economist puts it, “Either governments are not serious about climate change or fossil fuel firms are overvalued.” In other words, if there is no political will to combat climate change, then the companies are valued accurately.

Obviously, the oil industry has no intention of stranding those assets. This became evident last week when Exxon Mobil considered the risk of stranded assets. The company found that it is “highly unlikely” that government action will force it to abandon its reserves. Rather, the company said, “All of Exxon Mobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs.”

All of this indicates that the divestment campaign must pursue a two-pronged approach. Ben Caldecott, who directs the Stranded Assets Program at the University of Oxford, tells me that the campaign could impact the oil industry indirectly, saying, “Certain companies and sectors will also become stigmatized and these could face a higher cost of capital.”

But these companies are not changing their business model. “It’s like asking Levi’s jeans to keep 80 percent of their jeans on the shelf,” Caldecott says. The fact that that national oil companies now control 90 percent of world oil reserves complicates the matter further.

That means governments are going to have to get involved. First, any action on climate change will have to be international, with the most effective strategy being the introduction of a global tax on carbon. Second, we need to begin financing a renewable energy sector to better compete with carbon-based forms of energy. And third, we have to accept the hard truth that the global economy must grow slower for sustainability’s sake.

The alternative is ecological collapse. The divestment campaign has always been aimed at raising awareness among investors, the public, and politicians. The campaign has forced the issue, and Exxon Mobil has showed its cards. Right now, the company is betting governments won’t act. Let’s prove them wrong.

Originally published on The Week.