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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/25/13

The Case for Fossil-Fuel Divestment

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So when, for instance, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust says "our most effective impact on climate change" will come from "what we do with our teaching, our research. . . the students who may be the heads of the EPA or all kinds of organizations," it's partly true -- that scholarship is important. But it's also clearly not doing the job alone, since the temperature keeps going up.

Universities have in fact already gone well beyond scholarship in the climate fight. As veteran student organizer Maura Cowley points out, 738 colleges from Adams State to Yeshiva University have already signed the "President's Climate Commitment," pledging that their campuses will go carbon-neutral because they are "deeply concerned about the unprecedented scale and speed of global warming." The commitment is more than rhetorical -- open up almost any college web page and you'll find a tab for "sustainability," with the PR office lauding the latest effort to install solar panels or convert to a pedestrian campus. "You can't walk 20 steps on the Stanford campus without seeing a recycling station," says Harrison. "I've been very impressed with all of that, which is why it seems so illogical they're invested in fossil fuel." Exactly -- if you're committed to greening your campus, why wouldn't you be committed to greening your portfolio, too? Why is the heating system for the new arts center a proper target for environmental concern, but not the $50 million sitting in Peabody Coal, where it helps support climate-denying think tanks and reality-denying Congressmen?

Hence divestment. Sometimes, colleges can exert influence without selling stock -- on many issues, like sweatshop labor, they may have been smarter to keep their stock, so they could use their position as shareholders to influence corporate decision-making. "But when we were talking about sweatshops, it wasn't because we were opposed to t-shirts. We just needed some changes in how companies operated," says Klein. Adds Dan Apfel, who as head of the Responsible Endowments Coalition has coordinated much of the emerging divestment furor, "If you're Apple, we want you to produce your computers in ways that are good. But we like computers. The fossil fuel industry, though -- its existence is fundamentally against our existence. We can't change them by investing in them, because they're not going to write off reserves. There's no way they can be made sustainable, in the same way tobacco can't be made healthy."

2) Universities understand math, and in this case the math about who's to blame is Q.E.D. clear. It points straight at the fossil fuel companies.

By now, most activists know the three numbers I outlined in this magazine last summer, in a piece that immediately went viral: If we're to hold planetary warming to the two degrees that the world's governments have said is the absolute red line, we can only burn 565 more gigatons of carbon -- but the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned, have 2,795 gigatons of carbon in their reserves. That is, they have five times the coal and oil and gas needed to roast the earth, and they fully intend to burn it -- in fact, a company like Exxon boasts about spending a hundred million dollars a day looking for more hydrocarbons, all the fracking gas and Arctic oil and tar sands crude they can find. "The math is so irrefutable," says Klein, the veteran anti-corporate activist who's been helping lead the fight. "The fossil fuel companies haven't even bothered to dispute it. And coming to the issue with numbers like that, putting them in an academic context, that's radical. It makes it hard for the boards of trustees -- who after all are supposed to be numbers people -- to deal with. Suddenly it's the students who are the number crunchers, and the idealistic fantasists are the bank presidents on the board who don't want to deal with the reality staring them in the face."

It's not as if all of us who use fossil fuel aren't implicated -- flying to Florida for spring break fills the sky with carbon. But it's only the fossil fuel industry that lobbies round the clock to make sure nothing ever changes. "We've figured out the root of the problem by this point," says Maura Cowley, who as head of the Energy Action Coalition has been coordinating student environmental efforts for years. Individual action matters, but systemic change -- things like a serious price on carbon that the industry has blocked for years -- is all that can really turn the tide in the short window the science of climate still leaves open. "Going after them directly feels seriously good," says Cowley.

3) Faced with this kind of irrefutable evidence, colleges have led in the past, conceding that their endowments, in extreme cases, can't seek merely to maximize returns.

In the 1980s, 156 colleges divested from companies that did business in apartheid South Africa, a stand that Nelson Mandela credited with providing a great boost to the liberation struggle. "I remember those days well," says James Powell, who served as president of Oberlin, Franklin and Marshall, and Reed College. "Trustees at first said our only job was to maximize returns, that we don't do anything else. They had to be persuaded there were some practices colleges simply shouldn't be associated with, things that involved the oppression of people." Since then, colleges have taken stances with their endowments on issues from Sudan to sweatshops. When Harvard divested from tobacco stocks in 1990, then-president Derek Bok said the university did not want "to be associated with companies whose products create a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to other human beings." 

Given that the most recent data indicates fossil fuel pollution could kill 100 million by 2030, the coal, oil and gas industry would seem to pass that test pretty easily; it's also on the edge of setting off the 6th great extinction crisis, so everyone over in the biology lab studying non-human beings has a stake too. Here's how Desmond Tutu, Mandela's partner in the liberation of South Africa, put it in a video he made for the DotheMath tour: "The corporations understood the logic of money even when they weren't swayed by the dictates of morality," the Nobel Peace Prize-winner explained. "Climate change is a deeply moral issue, too, of course. Here in Africa, we see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they've done nothing to cause the situation. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts." Or, you know, not.

4) And it's not just people at a distance who are in trouble here, though so far they've borne the brunt -- young people, the kind of people you mostly find on campuses, are the next chief victims of climate change.

Let's assume the average age of a college trustee is 60, meaning he or she has another two decades on this planet; they may shuffle off to the great class reunion in the sky before climate change becomes unbearable to well-off First Worlders. But your average student has six decades ahead -- and scientists say that at our current pace of unrestricted warming, we could see the planet's temperature rise 6 degrees Celsius in that stretch, with consequences best described as science fiction. "By the time we're ready to have kids, buy a home -- it's already a radically different world if we don't put the brakes on as quickly as possible," says Cowley, the national student organizer. "It's difficult to plan your life as a young person right now -- by the time we get to 2050, we don't even know where we're going to get our food."

It's not like administrators, faced with global warming, are deciding for themselves. Carbon dioxide molecules stay in the atmosphere a century on average, which means, according to the modeling team at Climate Interactive, that "by the time a 55-year-old college president who insists today that a portfolio requires fossil fuel investment reaches the age of retirement, only 11 percent of the CO2 released during the class of 2016's education will have left the atmosphere." In fact, says former college president Powell, such an analysis suggests trustees have a quasi-legal duty to do all they can about climate change: "The board is supposed to make sure that the endowment allows for inter-generational equity, that the students who are going to Oberlin in 2075 get as much benefit from it as those there now. But with global warming, you're guaranteeing a diminution of quality of life decades out."

At the very least, it feels bad -- like the opposite of what college trustees are supposed to be doing. "I see this generation being betrayed on every front," says Klein. "Youth without a future -- that's how they feel about the economy. And they when they understand that thanks to climate change they may literally be facing no future, it makes them really, really angry, as well it should." The good news is, lots of people are already reaching across those generational lines. "Sometimes it's dangerous to separate it by generations," says Alex Leff, a freshman at Hampshire College, which effectively divested this spring. "My family always said, 'You kids have to do something about this.' I really reject that -- what if we dismiss it too, and say it's a job for our kids? Youth can't be the only ones driving this -- it helps a lot to see our elders doing their part too." So at college after college, professors (many of whom were in college during past divestment fights) are signing petitions and joining marches. Alumni are starting to pitch in too -- these are early days, but campuses report letters arriving from donors asking if they're planning to do the right thing.

5) And in this case, they can do the right thing without great cost.

College trustees, of course, are thinking about their endowments. They worry that they'll lose money if they do divest -- that if they can't park their money in Exxon et al., their yields may dwindle.

The fear is almost certainly overstated -- energy stocks have outperformed the market index the last few years, but lag if you take the last 30 as a whole. Stephen Mulkey is president of Unity College in Maine, which became the first college in the nation to officially divest its fossil fuel holdings. He stood up to give the news in front of the thousands that crowded into Portland's State Theater for that stop on our roadshow, an electric moment that brought the throng to its feet. "You don't have to do it overnight," he pointed out -- indeed, campaign organizers have asked only that colleges pledge to sell their shares, and then spend the next five years winding down their positions so they don't have to sell in a fire sale. "There's abundant academic literature showing that social screening such as this, given the most likely market conditions in the near future, will not result in poor performance. You're not divesting and then just forgoing those profits -- you divest from BP and invest in something else. You reanalyze your portfolio." In fact, there's been one academic study of the effects of divesting, and it shows the "theoretical return penalty" at 0.0034 percent, which is the same as "almost none."

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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