“It’s wrong to profit from wrecking the planet.” So says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. Climate change has become, front and center, a moral issue: Will human society turn away from burning fossil fuels in time to prevent catastrophic changes to the Earth’s climate, human society and the ecosystem? What kind of world will we leave for future generations?
Borrowing from the anti-apartheid activists of the 1980s, McKibben launched a divestment campaign late last year to focus attention on the immorality of investing in fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies have five times more oil, coal and gas in known reserves than climate scientists think is safe to burn. We have to keep 80 percent of their fossil fuels underground to keep the Earth in livable shape. Our governments need to enact policies that promote the transition to renewable energy, but they are moving at a glacial pace. Without letting governments off the hook, the fossil fuel divestment strategy opens a whole new arena by letting concerned citizens take their case directly to investors.
The results have been astounding. Over 250 campuses initiated campaigns by the end of the year, calling on their endowment funds to immediately stop investing in fossil fuel companies and to divest existing stock holdings from their portfolio within five years. That’s 250 campuses where climate change has moved into the discourse. And already four colleges have met the challenge: College of the Atlantic, Hampshire College, Sterling College and Unity College have decided to divest.
Here in Madison, students created a petition calling on the UW Foundation to responsibly invest their $5 billion endowment fund by divesting from fossil fuel companies. They delivered more than 1,200 signatures to President Mike Knetter and over 100 letters from faculty and staff. Just prior to the board’s March meeting in Florida, local 350.org members dropped off “Go Fossil Free” pinwheels for each board member as a reminder that the future lies in clean, renewable energy. Four other UW campuses — Eau Claire, Green Bay, Platteville, and River Falls — are also conducting divestment campaigns.
This spring the burgeoning movement has moved off campus and into the community. 350.org and the Go Fossil Free campaign are now encouraging activists to urge state and local governments to divest, as well as other institutional investors like churches and foundations. The mayor of Seattle led the way in December with city operating funds, and is working toward divestment of its pension fund. Could Madison’s mayor be next? How about the state pension fund?
Given the enormous size of the fossil fuel industry, it’s fair to wonder whether institutional divestment can have a significant impact on the companies’ bottom line. Probably not, but that’s not the point. When faculty members, faith groups, boards of directors and local elected officials are asked to take a stand on divestment, it pushes them to take a stand on climate change. Those discussions move the issue forward into the public and political arena and help build the case for action.
Furthermore, divestment creates uncertainty about the future of the fossil fuel industry. If investors question the wisdom of putting their money into fossil fuels, we can slow the growth of dirty energy. If they decide to invest in green energy instead, we can simultaneously spur the growth of renewable energy. In fact, renewable energy, efficiency and sustainable alternatives can be at least as profitable as fossil fuels.
To get involved, contact 350.org at email@example.com or go to our website at 350madison.org. Or attend our next meeting, a campus teach-in on the Keystone XL Pipeline, on April 8 at 7 p.m. in Room 15 of Science Hall. Let’s stop wrecking the planet.
Madeleine Para is co-coordinator of 350.org’s Madison chapter.