It’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.
Big 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.