Sunday, March 15, 2015

Divesting from Fossil Fuels

Global_Carbon_Emissions.svgIt’s official – 2014 was the hottest year on record. And most everyone I talk to is concerned about the threat that global warming and climate change, with their potentially devastating and possibly permanent consequences, pose to the lives and livelihoods of our children and grandchildren.

Scientists tell us that sea levels and water temperatures are rising, imperiling coastal populations, as well as regional environments and economies; that sea ice is being lost and glaciers receding at unprecedented rates or disappearing altogether; that seasons and plant and animal ranges are shifting and habitat vanishing, threatening to drive entire species of animals to extinction; that weather patterns are becoming more erratic and less predictable; and that worldwide, the number, intensity, and resilience of violent tropical storms is increasing. They warn that other potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, more severe heat waves, sustained periods of drought in certain regions, and unprecedented winter weather conditions in others; all of which jeopardize fresh water supplies, wildlife, and in some instances, indigenous people and their ways of life.

It is widely accepted within the scientific community that almost 100% of the observed temperature increase over the last 50 years has been due to the increase in what are commonly called ‘greenhouse’ gas concentrations in the atmosphere; that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are a contributor to the problem; and that it is imperative that, as the nations of the world prepare for the consequences of global warming, we move away from coal, oil, and natural gas extraction for energy production, in favor of clean alternatives that don’t contribute to the problem.

But what can we do to bring about meaningful change?

In the mid-1970s, in opposition to the South African government’s system of apartheid; an economic, political and social segregation based solely on race; students across the United States and around the world endeavored to encourage the universities and colleges that they attended to approve endowment divestiture in corporations with operations in South Africa. In 1977, as nearly 300 Stanford University students, protesting against the University’s investments in companies doing business in racially prejudiced South Africa were arrested (the largest number of students arrested at once in the university’s history and the largest mass arrest since the anti-Vietnam war protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, which opened in 1970 as an experiment in alternative education, became the first school to divest from South Africa. In December of that year, the Stanford University board of trustees adopted a South Africa-related ethical investment policy. And from 1977 through 1985, more than 180 universities and colleges, including Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, agreed in whole or in part, to divestment in companies doing business in South Africa.

Students are once more turning to remonstration; this time advocating for divestment in publicly held fossil fuels corporations. And again, it was Hampshire College that took the lead. In December of 2011, their Board of Trustees approved a sustainable investment policy expelling all fossil fuel holdings. Less than one year later, another New England college, Unity College in Maine, also committed to fossil fuel divestment.

In 2013 and 2014, the list of colleges withdrawing investments in fossil fuel-based corporations grew to include, among several others, San Francisco State University and Green Mountain and Sterling Colleges, both in Vermont. In Europe, Glasgow University became the first academic institution to divest from the fossil fuel industry; the University of Edinburgh conducted a staff and student consultation that was overwhelmingly in support of divestment; the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London agreed to a temporary freeze on investment in advance of a decision on full divestment, which is expected to be made later this year; and 64 Oxford professors and other senior academics signed an open letter, presented with a petition signed by over 800 students, staff, and alumni, urging the university to strip its £3.3 billion endowment fund of all investments in fossil fuel companies. The University of Oxford is believed to have the largest investments in fossil fuel companies of any UK university.

On Dec. 11, 2013, by a vote of 46-13-2, the Cornell University Faculty Senate adopted a resolution; Cornell Investment and Divestment Strategies for a Sustainable Future; which called for the divestment of Cornell’s nearly $6 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel-holding companies. The decision made Cornell University the first of the eight Ivy League colleges to pass a resolution calling for divestment. The resolution also called for Cornell to set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2035.

Last spring, Stanford University, acting on a recommendation of Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, declared that it would no longer use any of its endowment ($21.4 billion as of Aug. 31, 2014) to make direct investments in coal mining companies. And just last month, 300 Stanford professors, including two Nobel laureates, sent a letter to the University recommending that Stanford divest its endowment of all fossil fuel holdings.

In January, Vermont’s Goddard College became the third Vermont college to complete its divestment from fossil fuel company investments; the University of Maine elected to divest from direct holdings in coal-mining companies; and the University of Hawaii agreed to examine the feasibility of selling off investments in companies involved in fossil fuel production.

Carbon_Dioxide_400kyrBig investors and philanthropies are also choosing to disinvest in fossil-fuels. In fact, in the wake of recent price declines, a lot of investment analysts are saying that the financial argument for divestment, which is directly tied to the environmental argument, is stronger than the argument for maintaining holdings in these companies. One of the philanthropies that recently elected to divest is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, an $860 million fund managed by the heirs of John D. Rockefeller who, along with two partners, established Standard Oil Company in 1862; an oil refining company which, by the 1880s, controlled roughly 90 percent of American refineries and pipelines. (The U.S. Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of anti-trust laws and ordered it to dissolve, in 1911.)

Churches are divesting, too. Last summer, not long after Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African social rights activist who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid, said that “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” the World Council of Churches, representing religious leaders from around the world and over 500 million Christians in more than 110 countries, decided on ethical grounds, to completely divest from fossil fuels.

In 2013, the United Church of Christ became the first major religious body in the United States to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies. Last summer, the Church of Sweden, which began removing fossil fuel companies from its financial portfolio in 2009, announced that it had liquidated all fossil fuels holding from its $830 million portfolio. The Anglican Diocese of Perth, Australia, announced plans to divest itself of holdings in fossil fuels, as has the Uniting Church in Australia, one of that country’s largest Christian denominations.

What does your faith tell you about Fossil Fuel divestment?

Illustrations: Above, Global fossil carbon emission by fuel type, 1800–2007 (carbon only represents 27% of the mass of CO2); and below, Carbon dioxide variations over the last 400,000 years, showing a rise since the industrial revolution.


Richard Gast

Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.




17 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    Yes, Global Warming is becoming a a major issue with many fringe groups in schools and religion. But you seem to be concentrating on Fuel Production as the major bad guy. Of equal importance is the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. Deforestation, conversion of lands to agriculture, production of fertilizers, diversion of water, etc can have a major effect on this, too. You are looking at only one side of the equation.

    Over the same time periods on your chart several correlations can be *proved*. But, as in all statistics, it never shows the how and why. You could easily correlate the number of roads in the world to the amount of CO2 generated over the same time period. Should we tear up all our roads?

    Solar input to the planet can have a major effect that is totally ignored. http://atmospheres.gsfc.nasa.gov/climate/index.php?section=136
    http://atmospheres.gsfc.nasa.gov/climate/index.php?section=138
    Both articles provide a little insight into the complexity of the issue, beyond a simple stop burning petroleum/coal stand point.

    While it is nice to know that academia is doing something, they are too small of a segment to really matter on a global scale. Better would be to examine alternative fuels (alcohol for transportation, for example) that are basically “carbon neutral.” (Those items that balance input/output of CO2 to the atmosphere.) Brazil has the beginnings of an alcohol based transport industry. Do the research.

    While it is nice to remember that apartheid is a radical solution to a so called “race” problem, what exactly does this have to do with climate? Are you saying darkly colored people absorb more heat and should be eliminated? No, I don’t think so, but this could be construed badly. Stick to on-target, on-topic examples. Don’t even bring up religion. Most people in the world will disagree with you and, by inference, weaken your point. Some, like Isis, et al, will do the opposite of what you say, just to piss you off. Careful…. Don’t forget, the web is world wide.

    I agree with you. Petroleum makes plastics. It is FAR too valuable to burn even if it is the best available fuel. But divesting of petroleum is not the way to go.

  2. Jim says:

    Please share the source of the fact you opened with “2014 was the hottest year on record”. I had not heard that before & an official source is always good back up. Thanks, Jim

  3. john says:

    Don’t you know that if someone sells their stock in a corporation, (divesting) that there needs to be a buyer ? So I can sell all my oil company stock, yet there is a buyer on the other end. It’s hurting no one. Its like taking money from one pocket and putting it in the other. Besides, we all know that this global warming is a scam anyway! The warmest year on record was not 2014, it was 1937. Since then there’s been a relatively moderate climate. but of course, EVERYTHING is because of global warming. Lots of snow = global warming! Little snow = global warming! But you alarmists refuse to acknowledge that. Now, for the personal attacks. I stand ready.

    • Paul says:

      “The warmest year on record was not 2014, it was 1937.”

      See above. Folks can make the bogus claim that humans have nothing to do with it but you can’t claim that some other year is the warmest. Entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

  4. jay says:

    John,
    You are a voice of reason in this climate change scam.Until someone figures how to fly a 747 without fossil fuel ,I will continue to invest in oil stocks.
    I will defend you in any personal attacks.

  5. Big Burly says:

    An interesting review of financial decisions made by wealthy organizations.

    Like Rich, whom I have known for several years, I lived thru this period where the relatively well off in the world have made decisions of conscience regarding the types of investments made. Whereas the actions to undo apartheid did indeed change the political leadership, after the fact the world news media has seemingly abandoned those who were purported to be helped. The fact that a black tribe is now in a leadership role in South Africa, instead of a white tribe, has not improved the economic and social lot in any substantive measure, of the millions not members of either.

    For those individuals and organizations who created the endowments Rich refers to, one has to wonder what would be their judgment of the decisions made today in their name.

    For those billions around our planet who yet yearn for dependable energy supplies and economic progress that will provide a measure of physical comfort for them and their progeny, the rich on our planet seem content, even eager, to deny access to even a small measure of well being that most living in North America and Western Europe take for granted.

    The reality is the so called sustainable and renewable energy sources are not yet as reliable and affordable as the fossil fuels technologies. Progress is being made for sure … yet one has to wonder about the humaneness of deliberately diminishing economic opportunity and physical well being of mankind while the technologies of sustainable and renewable energy are perfected.

    New ways of using solar energy, touted as the future, is unfortunately mired on the planet. Yet the US space agency, NASA, has workable technology that would use huge arrays stationed at LaGrange points between the earth and its moon to generate electricity and beam to the existing grids on the planet via microwave all the electrical energy that mankind could use. Certainly clean and feasible. The hurdle ?? The tools to build the rocketry to lift the components to those gravity neutral locations was destroyed after the US stopped the moon landing program. No other nation at this point in time is capable of building this. It will take the same huge sums of money invested to create this lift capacity that will get these huge machines into orbit to harness the sun, 24 hours a day.

    That financial capacity is diminished with the type of dead end approach that divests pools of capital from sources of income and growth.

    In the history of mankind, it is a relative instant in the timeline that the rhythms of civilization have been able to thrive at all hours of the earth day. It takes energy and lots of it. Let’s ensure that in the zeal and dedication of the well meaning amongst us that there are no unintended consequences that deny so many on the planet being able to achieve what we have by dint of their own effort.

    A study of the history of this planet confirms that there have been many periods of very much warmer temperatures, much higher oceans, as well as much colder periods too. The human race has the ability to adapt and our history is replete with outstanding accomplishments as a result.

    Divestment is not an achievement in my estimation — it is more in the category of a display of self righteousness without consequence.

    • John L says:

      Very well said Big Burly. One sad part of this article (to me) is the amount of money that’s in college endowments these days, $6 billion, $21 billion, as high as $32 BILLION (Harvard). This is all happening as college tuitions continue climbing through the already pierced roof, college loan debt is driving more and more students to bankruptcy court, and colleges are teaching less and less useful stuff and more and more politics, most of it left-leaning. That’s it. Please forgive me as I know that’s not the subject of this article. I just had to get it off my chest as the opportunity arose. Thanks for listening.

      • Ethan says:

        College endowments are like the rest of this country: there’s the 1% and then everyone else. Harvard is rolling in it. But the smaller, less well-known schools? They’re struggling. And state legislatures are cutting education funding left and right ….

  6. Ethan says:

    Far more effective than the symbolic action of divestment, which doesn’t adversely affect the entities concerned unless the number of people divesting themselves of the stock is SO large it actually changes the supply/demand curve (it’s not even close), is putting pressure on organizations that do business w/ “bad agents.” The Times had a great recent article on this: environmental groups putting pressure on big banks to stop providing financing for mountaintop coal removal. Currently only two big sources of financing remain for this capital-intensive activity. THAT’S how to effect change. Make it so expensive to engage in the bad behavior that the organization stops doing it.

    McDonald’s announcing that by 2016 (or 17, I forget) it will only use antiobiotic-free chicken is another great example. That’s going to get chicken suppliers who’ve resisted change despite the clear negative effects of overuse of antibiotics in animals on human health to reserve their course — and fast.

  7. Peter Brown says:

    Divesting of fossil fuel is going only going to destroy the poor and middle class. The so called intellectuals love this. Figures lie and liars figure. Richard has a agenda to destroy us.

  8. JR says:

    I just want to know what happened the great global cooling of the 70’s?
    Didn’t generate enough fear for funding?

  9. Paul says:

    Shareholders (company owners) make decisions every day about what in and why they want to invest their money.

    We turned away from kerosene when electricity became a better way to light our homes. John Rockefeller tried his best to stop it since it was hurting his kerosene business but in the end the better way wins. This switch came despite crushing monopolies and politicians easier to buy than today. In the end the markets decide what happens. This isn’t like some big conspiracy it is just they way business works sometime.

    • bob says:

      Increasing carbon dioxide is not compatible with global cooling. The story only holds if carbon dioxide goes up and temperatures go up. It will be a hoot when we all see that carbon dioxide is going up and temperatures are going down.

  10. bob lyon says:

    Al Gore predicted the arctic ice cap would be gone due to “global warming”. It has actually grown larger.

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/mike-ciandella/2014/09/02/arctic-ice-cap-grows-same-year-al-gore-predicted-it-would-disappear-

    Data beginning in 1880 is not sufficient to build models or make predictions about future climate. How long has the earth been here?