Climate Action 2.0: Divestment

Let’s face it: changing light bulbs and recycling are not working. It’s just not enough. We continue to blast more and more carbon into the atmosphere each year. Scientists tell us the safe limit for carbon in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We’re at 392 parts per million and the upward march continues. The climate is warming and Hurricane Sandy is just a harbinger of what’s to come if we continue to gorge on fossil fuels. As Bloomberg Business Review so starkly stated last week: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

So what can we do? How do we turn this thing around when we face an industry that basically owns Congress? That denies climate change is happening, and that operates with total impunity. How do you convince a morally-absent behemoth that its short-sighted profits-before-life business plan needs to change? How do we get a movement together that takes the MATH seriously?

I’m excited about the new path of climate action proposed by Bill McKibben and that aims to show the fossil fuel industry the power of what a movement can do.

From The Do The Math tour will make it clear why the fossil fuel industry is so determined to block progress. As McKibben wrote in a groundbreaking article in Rolling Stone this June, the climate crisis can be boiled down into three simple numbers: 2°C, 565 gigatonnes, and 2,795 gigatonnes.

Even the most conservative governments in the world have agreed that global warming should be limited to no more than 2°C. Scientists say to meet that target we can only emit an additional 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the fossil fuel industry has 2795 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in their reserves, nearly five times too much — and everyday they spend millions of dollars looking for more.

“What this math shows is that the fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry,” said McKibben. “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both.”

I call it Climate Action 2.0. This new approach aims to engage universities, colleges, pension funds and religious institutions around the country to divest from their investments in the fossil fuel industry. This divestment strategy to bring about change to recalcitrant actors has worked before. Witness the demise of the apartheid regime of South Africa which was brought to its knees through the power of collective divestment in South African companies.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “We could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime. Students played a leading role in that struggle.”

Now it is time to send the fossil fuel industry a similar message.

I attended the Do the Math tour event in Palo Alto, California on Saturday night. The event was sold out, as it was in Seattle, Portland and other cities last week. This movement is mobilizing and has a lot of support material to get people informed and set-up to planning and staging successful divestment campaigns on campuses and other institutions. There is already one university that has taken the bold step of divestment. Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College in Unity, Maine wrote this about the decision of the Board of Trustees to divest:

“I am proud to be a part of the program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees for their willingness to make this affiliation. Indeed, the Trustees have been on the path of divestment for over five years. The Trustees have looked at the College’s finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand. I can think of no stronger statement about the mission of Unity College.

Our college community will lead by fearless action. We will confront policy makers who continue to deny the existence of climate change. We will encourage those who work in higher education to bravely step out from behind manicured, taxpayer funded hedges, and do what needs to be done. We will not equivocate, and we will meet those who have been misled by climate change denial in their communities.

The time is long overdue for all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in employing a destructive business model. Because of its infrastructure and enormous economic clout, fossil fuel corporations could pump trillions into the development of alternative energy. Government subsidies and stockholder shares could be used constructively to move these corporations to behave responsibly.

Higher education is the crown jewel of the United States system of education, and it remains the envy of the world. Higher education has always been dedicated to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. If our nation’s colleges and universities will not take a stand now, who will?”

If you live on the east coast, visit the website to see the upcoming tour dates and do not miss this event if the climate and the future of life on earth means anything to you. And if you are considering divestment of your own individual portfolio, the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment is a good resource.

For the earth.

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