Global Divestment Day

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

Are we performing an exercise in futility here? Is this a further saga in David vs. Goliath? Preparing for a talk on divestment from fossil fuels for today I’ve been reading much on the pro’s and cons of the debate. Almost all of the negative writing  I have found comes from sources funded by the fossil fuel industry – e.g. Exxon, Koch Brothers, etc.. It’s one thing to lobby – Exxon spent $27.5 million alone lobbying against climate change in 2009. but the activity of some of the big players in the fossil fuel industry has gone well beyond lobbying.

Scientific American reported on a study out of Drexel University in late 2013 that showed that between 2003-2010 more than 100 foundations have unloaded $558 million to climate denial organizations through untraceable third party foundations.Those numbers have escalated in recent years while the traceable funds from the likes of Exxon and Koch brothers have dried up.

If this wasn’t troubling enough, Mother Jones reported this week that Koch Brothers (Koch Industries is huge player in fossil fuel industry) are in the process of collecting and spending $889 million in the 2016 elections. In one of the recent donor gatherings they already raised $249 million. If you don’t believe money is corrupting our democracy you might want to check your pulse!

In almost every anti-divestment article I’ve read in the last month, there is rarely any mention of concerns about climate change. Often the authors raise canards about how divesting from fossil fuels will hurt the poorest of the poor – as if these generous benefactors have ever shown any real concern for our brethren as they line the pockets of the executives with more and more of the profits. Exxon’s CEO only made $40 million in 2012, but had to take a cut to $27 million in 2013.


South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, champion of the the anti-apartheid movement and the divestment movement that helped turn the world away from support for apartheid, has made a more compelling moral case for divestment from fossil fuels.

Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, today we say nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Or watch this compelling three minute video of him discussing the issue in more length. Likewise leaders like Ban Ki Moon and  Christina Figueres, UN Climate chief have made similar appeals.

The continued and dangerous rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is in large part the direct result of past investments in energy and mobility systems based on the use of fossil fuels. New investments must now assist in reversing this unsustainable trend, and quickly if the world is to have a chance of staying under a 20C temperature rise.(Figueres)

Despite the floods of money backing the attacks on the divestment movement, globally churches, local governments and universities are joining the cause. Just this  week the faculty at the University of British Columbia voted 62% in favor of divestment. David Green, an  economics professor there made perhaps one of the tightest arguments in support of that action.

As I see it, we have two choices. The first is to continue with business as usual and count ourselves as blameless because we have played within the current set of rules. The second is to question those rules; to step back and look for a way to change the rules; to change the social norm. This, to me, is part of the role of a university. If we don’t ask the big questions about what is really driving our problems and how to get society to change, who will?

PhD resource economist, Dr. Julie Gorte, Vice President for Sustainable Investing at Pax World Fund wrote cogently in their September 2013 newsletter, ESG Matters

Climate change isn’t a wolf at the door, it’s more like termites in the woodwork; it unfolds in episodes named Katrina or Sandy or the long-term drought in the Sahel, it is the foundation for nine western cities’ impending water crises. It is also a crisis in which the perpetrators and the victims are not necessarily the same people, nor even in the same generation. It’s not something that accommodates quick, cheap fixes; to solve it will take millions of people, thousands of government entities, and tens of thousands of companies acting toward more or less the same end for a considerable period of time.

One’s take on this issue, assuming you align with the near consensus that climate change is on and it’s human induced, seems to mostly correlate with how urgent one sees the need for response.The most recent study in Nature shows the basic math that scientists are using,

Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 °C. We show that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C.” (Nature 517, 187–190  (08 January 2015)

Professor James Engell of Harvard writes:

The fossil-fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned. Second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.


If one needs a reason to reconsider their complacency on this issue I would refer them to the enlightening explanation of growth by the late University of Colorado physics professor, Al Bartlett, who believed that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”     This three minute video explanation from his classroom should have some who think the push towards divestment is misplaced, understand how some of us feel the urgency that propels us to call for divestment from fossil fuels and to rapidly re-invest in energy conservation, efficiency, and renewable forms of power.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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