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mbruneThe fossil-fuel divestment movement has been on a roll lately to the tune of $50 billion, but one of its biggest successes happened last month: The world’s most profitable oil company squirmed. ExxonMobil’s vice president of public and government affairs published a critique of divestment that concluded by saying that destroying our planet’s climate by recklessly extracting and burning fossil fuel reserves is necessary to relieve global poverty.

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An ExxonMobil chemical plant along Cancer Alley in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana.

This sudden concern is interesting from a company that holds the record for the highest corporate profits ever posted in the U.S. and whose CEO made more than $100,000 a day in 2012 (including Sundays). ExxonMobil hasn’t earned those kinds of profits by worrying overmuch about the poor of the world. As the Sierra Student Coalition‘s Anastasia Schemkes put it: “This is the oil industry saying ‘please don’t be mean to me’ after bullying vulnerable communities around the globe for decades.”

The real message of ExxonMobil’s blog post was unintentional. The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started on college campuses but has since spread to foundation boardrooms and beyond, is achieving its principal goal, which is to raise awareness of how morally indefensible the actions of companies like ExxonMobil really are. I’m not just talking about its core business of extracting as much oil as it can, wherever it can, while it can. This is a company that pretends to care about climate disruption (with lots of talk about “mitigation,” which is code for “do whatever it takes to keep burning fossil fuels”), while simultaneously funding the climate-denial industry and lavishing its largesse on obstructionist legislators.

How can we begin to get companies like this to change? It’s tough to beat such a Goliath through financial pressure alone. Even the most wildly successful divestment campaign is unlikely to dent this mega-corporation’s profits in the near term. But let’s not forget that even the hugest corporation is made up of real people. And real people start to get uncomfortable when it’s clear that not only is what they are doing terribly wrong—but that other people are taking note.

That’s when they start to get defensive—and we can see that divestment really is making a difference.

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