Framing fossil fuel divestment goals with social injustices imperative for movement

Written by Meg Callaghan, Student Organizer with Syracuse University and SUNY ESF Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign; Re-posted from the Daily Orange

Environmental activists often focus on bringing justice to aspects of our world that don’t have a voice, such as air, water or precious animals. But when issue framing does not include humanity, environmental injustices fail to resonate with the general population.

This past weekend, four students from the Syracuse University and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign traveled to talk about climate change, non-renewable resources and the role of colleges and universities at the Power Up! Fossil Fuel Students Convergence in Swarthmore, Pa.

At this convergence, students from across North America met with their eyes on the prize of divestment, or the act of retracting money from particular investments. In this case, it is to divest college money from the fossil fuel industry, a goal that has swept college students from across the country into action.

While many campaigns have focused on climate change’s effects and the economic benefits of divestment, Power Up! was unique. The organizers framed divestment as a social justice issue, which is not unlike the call for divestment in apartheid-ridden South African industries in the 1980s.

Thirty years ago, that movement was successful because of effective issue framing and consistent action, and today, South Africa is free of apartheid, due in small part to the college divestment movement. They framed their argument by showing the world what apartheid really meant to South Africans and calling for social justice. With this frame, more people could be reached through empathetic support.

Successful framing is a key portion of any campaign. It is a tool to open up the world to the multifaceted sides of an issue while appealing to a larger audience of mixed mindsets. It is not a way to skew issues, but instead reach out to those that think differently from each other.

Framing environmental issues in social justice does this by attracting more individuals to work toward the same goal.

People are getting sick, literally and metaphorically, of being controlled by the fossil fuel industry, as social injustices range from human health impacts to economic effects. These specific social injustices fall into the category of the overall environmental justice movement – a mixing of the civil rights, environmental and non-toxic movements of the 20th century.

For three days at the Power Up! conference, our group heard story after story about the people affected by environmental injustice, told by the people themselves. We heard of Pennsylvania town Chester’s struggles with pollution and waste industries, where its human health and local economy has experienced a devastating blow.

We heard of the Canadians’ fight against tar sands and oil industries on their ancestral home, where traditions are overlooked and again, human health is crippled. We heard of big coal in West Virginia and big oil in the Gulf Coast. These stories are not new and not singular to any one place or people.

A countless number of Americans and people across the globe are negatively affected by fossil fuel industries every day through a variety of ways, including downturned economies and health. Divestment is a movement of solidarity to bring those people out of the effects’ front lines and into the forefront of our minds as a society.

To bring justice to these people, to our world, and to reach the goal of divestment, issue framing is imperative. We must reach out to every mindset by framing the points of the argument. Coupled with consistent action and not giving up the fight, activists have a better chance at making a better tomorrow.

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