“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit...if we appear to seek the unattainable, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”—Port Huron Statement, Students for a Democratic Society
These words, drafted by a small group of college students more than fifty years ago, sound eerily relevant today. The “unimaginable” invoked by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 was the prospect of apocalyptic nuclear war, a shadow under which the authors of the Port Huron Statement had lived their entire lives.
SDS was a student organization formed during the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. It promoted participatory democracy, direct action, and student involvement in the political issues and social movements of its day. The “unattainable” that it sought—a powerful social movement able to change economic, cultural, and political systems—is exactly what we need now in the fight against climate change.
Our generation faces a different but similarly terrifying prospect: the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. This is a challenge that we must confront now if we are to avoid the unimaginable in our lifetimes. In the last few months, fossil fuel divestment has emerged as an exciting new tactic. The divestment campaign, which has spread to over 300 colleges and universities, cities and religious organizations across the country, calls for institutions to immediately freeze all new investments in fossil fuels, as well as to completely divest their portfolios from all fossil fuel investments within five years.
Our generation faces a different but similarly terrifying prospect: the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. This is a challenge that we must confront now if we are to avoid the unimaginable in our lifetimes.
Spearheaded by Bill McKibben’s environmental group 350.org, the movement is gaining ground rapidly. So far, Hampshire College, Sterling College, College of the Atlantic, Unity College, and Santa Fe Art Institute have committed to divest. Many others colleges, including Swarthmore and Middlebury, are at advanced stages of their campaigns, and support for divestment is building at many more.
Divestment has also spread to cities, pension funds, and religious institutions. In December 2012, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pledged to keep city investments out of the fossil fuel industry, and San Francisco is close to becoming the second city to divest. The campaign has already attracted coverage in The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Guardian, NPR, Time Magazine, Al Jazeera, and more. It has also made its way onto the Senate floor, where Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) publicly commended it.
Divestment is not a new approach. The anti-apartheid movement as well as the anti-tobacco campaign used it extensively. The anti-apartheid divestment campaign is considered to have been critical in pressuring the South African government into negotiations that ultimately overturned its notorious system of extreme racial discrimination. Nelson Mandela visited California colleges and universities when he was released from prison to thank them; he specifically pointed to divestment as a catalyst that helped end apartheid. While divestment from South Africa and fossil fuel divestment are not identical, both campaigns are rooted in the moral imperative of financially and politically renouncing a destructive system. Through divestment, institutions send the message that they will no longer financially and politically support these destructive practices.
Divestment has three important dimensions: moral, political, and economic. Although its targets are financial, divestment’s main strength is not in its direct economic impact but rather in its ability to build a social movement and spread awareness about the issues. It draws force from its status as an ethical responsibility and moral imperative. Divestment calls upon colleges and universities to behave in a manner that is ethically consistent with their mission statements and the values they promote, as it is unconscionable and hypocritical for schools to profit from an industry that is condemning our world to climate disaster. Divestment also demonstrates to local and national officials that climate change is an issue that college students care about and for which they are willing to fight.
The practices of the fossil fuel industry are some of the worst of any corporate sector. They directly contribute to the horrific climate disasters whose numbers keep growing, and disproportionately affect low income and minority communities through pollution, toxic waste dumping and dangerous working conditions. Furthermore, the industry’s political and economic stranglehold on our government and society have allowed it to avoid or undermine meaningful regulation, and stifled development of greener alternatives that could lead us towards a more sustainable future.
Divestment is economically sensible as well as politically and morally compelling. Though some colleges are reluctant to divest for fear of short-term losses, or because they believe it would harm their economic bottom lines, divesting from fossil fuel companies has little impact on stock returns. In fact, a report by the Aperio Group, an investment management firm that offers a “socially responsible index,” found that the risk of fossil fuel divestment is negligible. It concludes that full divestment from all fossil fuel companies increased risk by about 0.01 percent, and divesting from the “Filthy 15”—the companies determined to be the worst of the fossil fuel companies—increased risk by less than 0.001 percent.
Furthermore, the impact of divestment on the fossil fuel industry is not entirely insignificant. Although the enormity of the industry's worth is daunting, the top 500 college and university endowments hold about $400 billion, of which an average of five to ten percent is invested in the fossil fuel industry. Add the investments of state pension funds and religious institutions and that starts to add up to a lot of money.
In the broader picture, fossil fuel investments may lose a significant portion of their value anyway if climate change—or the fight against it—accelerates. The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 drafted by the United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa recognized that the increase in global temperature must be kept below two degrees Celsius to prevent extreme climate disaster. If we are to keep to this agreement, eighty percent of known fossil fuel reserves must remain underground. This will likely cause a forty to sixty percent decline in the viability of fossil fuel investments, as reported by HSBC. Some mutual funds have already begun to divest from coal and oil because they realize that these investments are increasingly filled with risk. In October 2012, Financial Times ran an article about the "carbon bubble," comparable to the housing bubble of 2007. It is thus economically as well as morally sensible to start a gradual phasing out process and a transition away from fossil fuels.
Divestment calls upon colleges and universities to behave in a manner that is ethically consistent with their mission statements and the values they promote, as it is unconscionable and hypocritical for schools to profit from an industry that is condemning our world to climate disaster.
Some argue that divestment is not the best tactic for achieving significant change. Certainly no one method alone can achieve our goals. But other alternatives have proven to be either ineffective or insufficient. For example, changes on the individual and household scale—using more efficient light bulbs, buying hybrid cars, eating local food—are helpful, but nowhere near enough. A large, systemic change, such as climate change legislation or other environmental law reform, is needed.
Unfortunately, efforts to produce major policy shifts have so far also fallen short. President Obama said during his 2008 campaign that climate change legislation was one of his top priorities, and he supported the U.S. Climate Action Partnership’s push for a cap-and-trade bill. Despite bipartisan support, it failed to pass, buried by Congressional gridlock, the extreme rightward slide of the Republican Party and the enormous amount of money spent by the fossil fuel industry. In 2009, opponents of the climate bill outspent environmental groups eight to one on lobbying, and more than four to one on advertising. Then, in 2010, they outspent environmentalists eight to one in donations to candidates and Congress members, and ten to one on independent election expenditures. During Obama's first term alone, the fossil fuel industry donated $103,586,888, about eighty-five percent of which went to republican candidates.
This kind of stranglehold means that right now, change must come from a different direction. The fossil fuel industry is so deeply entrenched in our political system that it is preventing us from moving towards sustainability while it profits off of our use of fossil fuels, and its political hold on the legislative process leaves us no option but to find a different avenue to implement change. The divestment campaign is building the powerful national network we need to implement large-scale climate action.
While divestment is not an end-all-be-all solution, it is a critical step toward a new movement strong enough to pry our politicians from the grip of the fossil fuel industry. We must align our centers of power—colleges, universities, religious institutions and cities—to send the message that we will no longer let the fossil fuel industry control our government, economy, and undermine our hopes for a sustainable future.
The divestment campaign is spreading across the country; now is the time to act. This is the movement of our generation, let's stand up and claim it.