Thursday, April 25, 2013

Divestment Push Gaining Momentum

by Duncan Gromko
Swarthmore Mountain Justice Logo

10 cities committed to divesting from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies today. Mayors from Seattle WA, San Francisco CA, Boulder CA, Madison WI, Bayfield WI, Ithaca, NY, State College PA, Eugene OR, Richmond VA, and Berkely CA joined together to make the announcement. In a movement that has been slowly gaining momentum over the last months and years, this is a huge step forward.

Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle said: “Divestment is just one of the steps we can take to address the climate crisis. Cities that do so will be leaders in creating a new model for quality of life, environmental sustainability and economic success. We’ve got a head start on that here in Seattle, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

Here's a brief history of the divestment movement:

In November last year, Unity College announced it was divesting. I recommend reading all of President Mulkey's call to divest, but here is an excerpt: "Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers. As educators, we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions. Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror twenty years from now. What would you see? Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe? For me, the alternative is unacceptable."

Other schools have joined Unity. Hampshire college has an investment strategy to only invest in socially responsible corporations. Sterling College in Vermont announced on February 2 that it was divesting. The Santa Fe Art Institute of New Mexico announced divestment on February 15. The College of the Atlantic made its announcement on March 11. The divestment push has also gone international, with the Australian National University announcing that it would divest from the natural gas giant, Metgasco. Additionally, several schools are seriously considering divestment. Most recently, the Brown University oversight committee, which is charged with ensuring that the University's investments are in line with its with its ethical principles, voted unanimously to to recommend that the University divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to divestment commitments, discussion of the issue has led to continued discussions of universities' role in supporting fossil fuels. Most notably, Harvard's student body has pushed its administration to divest. This led to an awkward moment for Harvard, where its Vice President reluctantly accepted 1,300 student and alumni signatures supporting divestment. At NYU, students and alumni met with administration officials to demand divestment. Similar discussions are happening at UPenn, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Vermont, the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, and the University of California, San Diego. At Swarthmore College, there was a planning meeting for students urging for divestment, which received TV coverage from MTV.

Over 300 universities and municipalities have public campaigns to shame the fossil fuel industry. The series of op-eds and articles cited above represents considerable involvement from young adults. While the 2008 push for cap-and-trade was dominated by industry insiders, this is clearly an "outsider" movement.

Divestment (and the Keystone XL pipeline) is the opportunity to create that passionate base and send a message that there is a political cost to inaction on climate. It can turn fossil fuel companies into social pariahs. Even if the only thing that comes from the divestment push is a conversation about the irreparable harm that fossil fuel companies are doing to our livelihoods, that is a great outcome.

AND, there is a moral case to be made here. Tobacco, apartheid, fossil fuels, etc. whatever. Personally, I don't want to profit from things that cause others harm. Universities should be moral examples for the young adults they are shaping.

A final, new angle to the divestment campaign is that there is a "carbon bubble:" fossil fuel investments are incompatible with mitigating climate change. The fossil fuels reserves counted on as assets by companies will become worthless if climate change is to be mitigated. If you believe in climate change and have faith that there will be a response to mitigating it, investing in fossil fuels is a bad business decision.

So what is to come of this? Bill McKibben brings up the immense powers that the divestment movement is up against:

"We've watched great cultural shifts and organizing successes in recent years, like the marriage-equality and immigration-reform movements. But breaking the power of oil companies may be even harder because the sums of the money on the other side are so fantastic – there are trillions of dollars worth of oil in Canada's tar sands and the North Dakota shale."

Despite this challenge, divestment advocates are optimistic about turning fossil fuel companies into social pariahs:

"The fossil fuel initiative may be more akin to divestment campaigns targeting tobacco companies. Just as those campaigns tried to link tobacco companies with the health effects of smoking in the popular consciousness, the current campaign wants to tie fossil fuel companies' reputations to droughts, rising sea levels, and the obstruction of climate action."

In sum, the divestment movement has quickly changed the conversation and involved young people in advocating for climate change action. The announcement today is a huge victory for the campaign and hopefully just the start.

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