WWJD: Divest From Fossil Fuels, That’s What!

Will the divestment movement really succeed in revoking the so-called social license of oil companies like Exxon?

In February, a student group at Tufts University passed a resolution calling on the president and Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels. (Photo: GoFossilFree.org)

Jul 12, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

If Jesus was alive today he very well might be joining churches, universities, and cities in a burgeoning movement to shed investments in companies such as Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal.

The fast-growing fossil-fuel divestment movement began with Bill McKibben’s “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” essay in Rolling Stone in July 2012, in which he outlined the moral power of a social movement to force change. The best known example was the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, which began on college campuses and ended up toppling the government of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the face of that movement, has endorsed fossil-fuel divestment.

“If we don’t act on climate change now, every sermon we’ll give in ten to 15 years will be on grief,” James Antal, Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, tells TakePart. He was arrested with Bill McKibben in August 2011 protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

After reading McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece, he prayed about it and decided to craft a resolution that would be a model for other denominations. The resolution calling for the United Church of Christ to divest passed the denomination’s synod, or general assembly, with 76 percent approval, last week.

The United Church Fund, which is the investing arm for all churches within the denomination, already screens for tobacco, gambling, military, and alcohol-related stocks. Now it has a fifth item to screen—fossil fuels. And Antal wouldn’t be surprised to see other denominations follow the UCC.

Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy, but a moral and political one. The aim is to “revoke the social license of Exxon,” says Antal. Just like in the struggle for civil rights or the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa, the more climate change is seen as a deeply moral issue, the more society moves towards action. At the same time, divestment builds political power by forcing our nation’s most prominent institutions and individuals sitting on college boards to choose a side. Divestment sparks a big discussion and gets prominent media attention, moving the case for action forward.

And, some investors are beginning the long and ugly process of grappling with the fact that unburnable carbon in fossil fuels will create stranded assets, i.e., assets worth less on the market than on a balance sheet. Divesting from fossil fuels carries only a nominal impact—one calculation (PDF) based on past performance shows that the difference between a “screened portfolio” (one without fossil fuels) and an unscreened portfolio is only 0.0002 percent. But staying invested in fossil fuels is beginning to be seen as akin to investing in asbestos and tobacco.

Students at over 300 colleges have passed resolutions calling for their trustees to divest. So far, only a handful of smaller colleges, mostly in the Northeast, have agreed. In addition, nearly 20 cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Santa Monica, have all passed varying kinds of resolutions and pledges. But the huge University of California, with its $70 billion fund, and other large colleges show no signs of listening to their students.

Fossil fuel divestment even got a shoutout from a one-time community organizer whose first foray into politics was as a college student protesting anti-apartheid in the 1980s, and who’s since moved on to become President of the United States.

On June 25, Barack Obama gave a barn-burner of a speech on climate change in which he told Georgetown University students to “Invest. Divest.” Activists were delighted by the direct acknowledgment of their work; until that moment, awareness of the movement seemed limited to student newspapers, financial sections, and 350.org blog posts.

Heather Moyer, a UCC member, was happy to see her environmental activism and Christian beliefs come together at the synod.

She tells TakePart: “If we believe that wrecking God’s creation to be wrong, then profiting from it is equally wrong.”