How Bill McKibben’s Radical Idea of Fossil-Fuel Divestment Transformed the Climate Debate
“We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
With these words, environmental activist Bill McKibben launched a radical and moral broadside against the fossil-fuel industry and its contributions to climate change in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012.
In a coordinated move, the McKibben-founded climate advocacy group 350.org launched its Go Fossil Free: Divest from Fossil Fuels! Campaign with a stated goal to “revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry.” With the help of activist college students, the movement sought to stigmatize fossil fuel companies, restrict future cash flows and depress share prices by compelling universities to divest their holdings in these companies.
Now, five years later, the effort seems to some to have been a failure, at least by the financial measures they laid out. Only a limited number of institutions have divested their endowments, and the stocks of major fossil-fuel companies show little effect.
But in doing a network text analysis of news articles, we found that by other measures the effort has been a success. Exhibiting a phenomenon in the social sciences called the “radical flank effect,” McKibben and 350.org have dramatically altered the climate change debate in the U.S. Their success on this dimension offers important insights relevant for all social activists to consider.
Parallel in Civil Rights Movement
First introduced by sociologist Herbert Haines in 1984, the radical flank effect refers to the positive or negative effects that radical activists can have on more moderate ones in the same cause.
The negative radical flank effect creates a backlash from opposing groups. In such cases, all members of a movement—both moderate and radical—are viewed with the same critical lens. For example, some may think that all environmental groups should be judged by the tactics of those who spike trees to prevent logging or ram whaling ships. 12-12-17