The Secret Life of Fossil Fuel Divestment:
Three reasons this campaign could change the world
The next issue of Green American magazine will be hitting mailboxes any day now, and the theme is the movement to divest from fossil fuels. As part of our research, we talked to a number of different leaders in the divestment movement. Here are some things we learned:
It’s been three months since Bill McKibben called on students to divest their university endowments from fossil fuels companies. Describing the companies as “public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization,” he laid out the math behind what will happen if the massive reserves of unburned fossil fuels are released into the atmosphere.
Students have responded enthusiastically. In January 2012, there were only a few dozen student groups working to green their schools’ endowments. As of this writing in February 2013, there are 252 who are pushing for divestment. The campaign has been covered in the New York Times and gained the support of influential figures such as Al Gore.
Another mark of success is when a campaign grows beyond campuses and takes root in the outside world. We found evidence of this type of success while speaking with the mayor of Seattle, a University of British Columbia alumna, and a leader in the United Church of Christ, whose state council has already chosen to divest.
Each is using divestment as a tool to fight climate change.
What has made this movement successful? You can read the full interviews with eight divestment leaders here. But below are the three most important reasons the divestment campaign has already made an impact.
1. It’s Widely Participatory
Although the campaign targets college and university endowments, divestment isn’t just for students – most Americans have access to investments through church, retirement plans, banks, or their past school. “It’s very easy for anyone to get involved with the divestment movement,” says Chloe Maxmin, co-coordinator of the student-led movement to divest Harvard. “I’ve talked to many individuals who have gone on and divested their own personal portfolios from fossil fuel companies.”
People with retirement investments can call their fund and ask them to move their money to a fossil fuel-free fund. University or college alumni can withhold donations until the school pulls its funds out of fossil fuel companies. Religious groups can look to their own theology as a basis for their decision about whether investing in fossil fuels is in accordance with their beliefs. The United Church of Christ Massachusetts council wrote their views of the subject here.
People from all walks of life can take action to divest through the groups that they are personally connected with, and in a familiar context.
2. It Represents Action that can be Taken Right Now
The problems of climate change can seem overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel paralyzed in the face of them. The divestment movement is powerful because it offers action can be taken now — and that’s a great psychological antidote to the feeling of helplessness.
Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle made history last November when he became the first mayor beginning the process of divesting his city from fossil fuels. “There are a lot of goals which are difficult to attain and which are going to take a lot of action to reach,” he says. “But the real question is can you take steps now that lead you towards that goal?”
So far the mayor has directed that the 1.4 million in cash balances not be invested in fossil fuel companies – the only chunk of money he has direct control over, and has offered encouragement and personnel assistance to the leading bodies of the deferred compensation and pension plans, should they decide to take steps to divest.
3. It Frames Climate Change as a Moral Issue
“The reason [fossil fuel companies] are profitable is because they’re destroying the earth. That’s what the church needs to be shouting,” says Rev. Jim Antal. “It’s real simple. They’re making a profit because we are letting them destroy God’s creation.”
Discussing the issue of climate change as a moral issue sets the stage for people to examine their own actions and to press for political change.
“What divestment did back during apartheid, and what it could do now in terms of fossil fuels, is that it forced lots of institutions to debate the issue in ways that changed the political climate in the US very significantly,” says Bob Massey, a leader in the 1980s campaign to divest from South Africa. After widespread moral outrage at the apartheid practices, the U.S. Congress passed the anti-apartheid act in 1986, and even overriding a veto by President Reagan. The act placed sanctions on certain US trade and travel, and is held responsible for crippling the South African economy.
When people call on their pension funds or schools to divest, they are not only pressuring the institution to change, they are forcing the leaders of the institution and the members of the board to grapple with a moral question. Board members are often extremely influential members of their communities, so their feelings of moral responsibility around climate change can have a ripple effect throughout the community.
Making climate change an explicit issue of right and wrong, and refusing to sanction that wrong by owning fossil fuel stock can be a powerful statement.
While the leaders of the campaign are currently counting success by the number of student petitions, school’s divested, and endorsements, we will ultimately measure its success by how many degrees we warm our planet.
“If the world is still in a place where people can function – where humanity can still live out, then we know that what we will have been successful,” says Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr, president of the Hip Hop Caucus.
Will we see a cultural shift around our willingness to stop climate change? Signs are starting to point to yes.
For more on shifting America to a green economy, subscribe to the Green American! Our latest issue on divestment is on its way to subscribers right now.