Why bet against ourselves? Divest!

February 10, 2015

“Invest in what helps. Divest from what harms.”  – President Obama, UC Irvine Commencement, 2014

“Invest: to furnish with power, authority; to infuse or belong to”  – Dictionary.com

breaking freeThe climate challenge is big, but it’s almost as simple as this: we’re too invested in fossil fuels. We’re giving them too much of our power and authority. And money, so much money. Global Divestment Day on February 13 is a golden opportunity to start turning that around.

Even fossil fuel companies don’t have enough power to get us to consciously choose the only future they offer – a future of concentrated wealth and power, economic and geopolitical insecurity, and devastating climate disruption. But we have a devil of a time choosing otherwise, because they’ve got their hooks so deep into our economy and our politics. They’ve nearly perfected the art of persuading us that we have no choice.

Our retirement savings and university endowments are capital pools for increasingly reckless adventures in fossil fuel extraction. Our ability to go to work, buy food, and educate our kids all depend on motorized transportation, overwhelmingly powered by oil. When I put my credit card in the gas pump, I pay for industry-sponsored climate denial and further exploration for “unburnable” carbon reserves. I can’t even drive to a climate presentation or run the Powerpoint deck without making it worse. Every time we turn around, we feed the beast. So how can we square up and fight it?

Harvard University President Drew Faust generously elucidated the problem in her statement rejecting divestment (BTW, Harvard students have no intention of accepting this answer):

“If we were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers.  Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies…. I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Faust captures the sense of complicity and fatalism that threatens to render us useless in the face of the climate crisis. We let our unavoidable contributions to the causes of climate disruption erode our will, our standing to insist on solutions. As we chase our tails about “troubling inconsistencies,” we retreat into moral numbness. We somehow accept the idea that it’s okay to take a cut of the profit from increasing fossil fuel dependence – averting our eyes from the unthinkable human suffering it causes – on the grounds that someone else will do it if we don’t. We allow our institutions of higher education to invest in industries that oppose climate action by waging a war on truth and reason – a war on the defining purposes of those institutions. It’s like one of those bad dreams where you try to run from danger but your legs just won’t move.

Divestment is an opportunity to wake from that nightmare.  The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions, even as we try to implement solutions ourselves. It presents a specific opportunity to reduce that commitment, to take some of our money back. Will we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately?  We’ll never get anywhere that way!

It’s a long road from here to solutions. We’re not going to quit fossil fuels and the jobs that depend on them tomorrow.   We need to do that patiently, incrementally, and with a firm commitment to a just transition that produces more broadly-shared prosperity. We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we do it.

tutu divestAnd we can take one bold, hopeful step forward right now. We can start winding down our investments in companies that block solutions, fund climate denial, and maul our communities in pursuit of ever more extreme fossil fuel extraction. We can stop investing in making it worse. And until we do that, nobody will believe us when we say we’re going to make it better. We won’t really believe it ourselves.

No, divestment won’t immediately, dramatically reduce fossil fuel company share prices (which, by the way, are tanking anyway – the sound of a bubble popping[i]?) And it certainly won’t, by itself, accomplish the necessary policy changes to drive the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But it will help us clear the biggest obstacle. It will deprive the fossil fuel juggernaut of some part of our complicity, our ambivalence, our license, our money. By putting a little financial daylight between us and the problem we’re trying to solve, it will feed our growing confidence that we can wage and win a clean energy revolution. Why bet against the solutions we’re trying to build?

Today, fossil fuels own us in part because we own them.

So tomorrow, divest.

Find out what’s going on in your community on Divestment Day HERE.

You can divest as an individual too! Find out more HERE. The pledge allows you to wind down your fossil fuel investments over time. Your interest in divesting will make it possible for more and better fossil free investment vehicles to be offered for individuals and retirement plans.

[i] There is a strong financial and fiduciary case for divestment – a growing body of evidence suggesting that the “carbon bubble” may already be popping, as global will for climate solutions grows and the clean energy revolution gains steam. I’m not going to make that case here, because, dammit, we should divest anyway. But check it out, e.g., in this terrific post from a Reagan appointee to the SEC, Bevis Longstreth, and also here.


Divest. Separate. Win.

May 12, 2014

Go Fossil Free took a big leap forward last week as Stanford University announced that it will purge coal stocks from its endowment portfolio. And Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, in a commencement address at Amherst, set his sights on a “future free of fossil fuels.”

Divestment is more than a tactic in the climate battle. In a broad sense, it’s the whole game. Because what’s holding us back is our own money and power, turned against us. Our buildings and vehicles and 401ks siphon our money to our opposition and sap our will for change. We’re too invested in dependence on fossil fuels.breaking free

Of course the “real” solutions – the most important things we need to do – are the policy changes that will drive a clean energy revolution: steadily improving performance standards for energy production and use, clean energy R,D&D, and a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure investments that “lock in” dangerous emission levels. Above all, we need a commitment to do the whole job: responsible limits on climate pollution, and carbon prices that tell the truth about carbon costs.

We haven’t won enough of those policy changes yet because we’ve been stymied by the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel industries. And why do they have so much power? Because they’ve stolen ours, and they keep stealing it. The money they use to pay for climate science denial and opposition to climate policy is our money.

The fossil fuel industry does not have enough money or power by itself to stop climate solutions. It only wins by continuously arrogating our power and using it against us.

We buy and burn their product. We need their stuff to chill our beer, light our homes, and get from point A to point B, because they have systematically blocked the path to better alternatives. Our retirement savings are their capital pools, and only now are fossil-free investment vehicles beginning to emerge. We feed the beast because it’s hard not to, …because the beast feeds us.

This puts us in a compromised, confused, and ineffectual position when it comes time to break free. Harvard University President Drew Faust elucidated that position in her statement rejecting fossil fuel divestment.

“I find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”

Even as we resist the power of fossil fuels over our future, we underwrite it. We hesitate to fully commit ourselves to the fight because we are in some sense on the other side.

And wait, the circle gets even more vicious. We know we feed the problem, so we feel implicated. The cycle of involuntary complicity is locked in place with psychological cement: guilt. Zadie Smith explains in “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons”:

“I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us…

For both ‘sides’ are full of guilt, full of self-disgust…and we project it outward. This is what fuels the petty fury of our debates, even in the midst of crisis.

Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar — essentially religious — cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.”

This is the ultimate stranglehold, the perfect heist of our power. Instead of anger, we harbor regret. Instead of resolve, we exhibit futility. Instead of engaging, we evade. Instead of hope, we feel shame.

To turn this power-sucking cycle around, we need to divest. We need to take our money and our power back. We need to separate ourselves from what’s holding us back, so we can move on.

As a power-building strategy, divestment is particularly efficient, because it takes back power that we currently give away. It’s a two-fer: we get more and our opponents get less. And, crucially, we start to build the power that comes from getting clearer about which side we’re on.

Selling off our equity stake in the most egregious perpetrators of the climate crisis is a terrific way to start separating our own will, our intention, and our money from the problem. And since the fossil fuel industry wages war on truth in order to preserve our dependence, our institutions of higher education — which exist to serve truth — are the perfect place to begin divesting.

FAQs

If we divest our portfolios, don’t we have to divest our energy supplies right away too? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical to drive to the store in an oil-powered vehicle?

No, for Heaven’s sake, lighten up!  We start from where we are.  Every time we take a little of our money and power back, we make it a little more possible to get the rest. We move forward.   (But we draw a bright line against new, long-lived capital infrastructure investments that make the problem intractable. Like Keystone XL.)

President Faust’s “troubling inconsistency” is exactly the point of divestment.   The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions. Divestment presents a specific opportunity to reverse that commitment, to take some of our money back.   Should we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately? We’ll never get anywhere that way!

Should we feel guilty about our continuing complicity in the climate crisis in the meantime?

Feel whatever makes you most determined to stand up and fight for solutions. Maybe for some people that’s guilt. Not me; as the son of a Jewish mom, guilt just turns me into an adolescent. I pout and withdraw.

Personally, I’ll take freedom. I don’t beat myself to a pulp with recrimination every time I fill up at a gas station. But mostly I get around just fine on my bike and on transit. And I’ve got a 2-year lease on a Nissan Leaf, which I fill up with carbon-free Seattle City Light electricity. Now, I go to the gas station, fill up my tires, clean my windshield….and Leaf!

Do I feel smug about that? Righteous?

Not a bit. I still consume way more fossil fuel than the average human can if we’re going to have a future. I feel trapped and implicated and pissed because most of the practical, available, affordable technology and lifestyle choices still require too much fossil fuel.

But steadily, I’m finding more ways to shake free — fewer trips to the gas station, less carbon in my power supply, more ways to get the grip of climate-destroying fossil fuels off me, off my grandkids’ future.

And when I divested my 401k from fossil fuels, I stood up a little straighter, saw a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t affect fossil fuel stock values. But it deprived the coal and oil industries of some part of one person’s ambivalence and confusion and demoralization.

Am I saying that because I want you to feel bad if you haven’t done any of those things yet?

No. I just want to tell you how good it feels when you do. I notice a strong correlation between my divestment from the problem and my sense that we might win solutions. It builds mojo.

Yes, but that’s “just symbolic,” right? Isn’t divestment kind of a distraction when we should be devoting all of our finite resources to winning a comprehensive climate policy?

The road to big policy solutions is blocked. We’re having trouble clearing it in part because we’re standing in it ourselves. Map the power:

Why don’t we have a comprehensive climate policy now? Because the fossil fuel industry has too much power.

Why? Because they stole our power.

How? By blocking solutions so that every time we try to break free, we end up chasing our tails about “troubling inconsistencies.”

What will happen when we propose a cap and a price on carbon? Big Fossil will attack it with a $ zillion ad buy accusing us of raising gas prices, punishing poor people, stealing jobs. And it will work because we are stuck in a cycle of “pervasive dependence” on fossil fuels. Pricing carbon is too easily portrayed as blaming and penalizing us for living our lives.

How will we position ourselves to prevail in the face of that? By asserting our freedom, taking our money and power back. By establishing that the only way to avoid being the victim of high fossil fuel costs is to break free of them, and that carbon pricing is a vital part of how we cut the chains. The point isn’t to pay more for fossil fuels. It’s to pay — and need them — less. As the Metro Bus ads in Seattle say: Gas is cheap when you don’t use it.

For now though, they own us in part because we own them.

Hence, today, divest.

 


Very, Very, Veritas: Harvard faculty call for divestment

April 14, 2014

The campaign to divest Harvard University’s endowment from fossil fuels took a dramatic turn last week, as 93 faculty members joined students and alumni in the burgeoning Divest Harvard campaign with a powerful open letter.Harvard Divest 2

“Our sense of urgency in signing this Letter cannot be overstated.  Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate.  These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents.  And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life…

Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means.  The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests.  If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.”

The Divest Harvard campaign has emerged as a flashpoint in the climate movement, pitting passionately committed student leaders against a reluctant administration, caught off guard by having to answer for the consequences of their investments in fossil fuels.

Harvard President Drew Faust flatly rebuffed the campaign last October in a statement that may go down as a landmark in the literature of shirking responsibility for climate disruption. It’s like a Field Guide to the Most Common Forms of Ethical Evasion: Our Actions Won’t Make Any Difference; Divestment is Hypocritical Because We All Use Fossil Fuels; We’re Reducing Our Carbon Footprint Instead of Pointing Fingers; Divestment Would be Inappropriately Political for an Academic Institution (but Investment is Just Business as Usual); Engagement is The Answer[i].   Faust plays all the greatest hits, and well.

This generous elucidation of the excuses for complicity in the climate crisis has proved to be something of a service to the movement. By leaning into these arguments with a twist of indignation and putting them on Harvard letterhead, Faust presented a well-lit target. She kicked up the ferocity of the growing ranks of students, alumni, and now faculty who are refusing to accept these excuses.

I have never met Drew Faust. By most accounts she is a wonderful person – a humanist and a brilliant historian whose work includes some of the most penetrating historical treatments of slavery. She is not the villain in this story. But she has for now accepted and reiterated the villain’s seductive and pervasive narrative, a story that keeps us locked in a cycle of denial, shame, and evasion of responsibility.

Now, the students have disrupted that cycle. They have drawn a bright, morally coherent line. Harvard must choose whether it will continue to profit from the climate crisis by feeding the most egregious perpetrators with the resource that makes them unstoppable: capital to build the infrastructure that will lock us in to catastrophic disruption.

As mind-boggling as the climate challenge is, as complicated as the answers are, and as good a human being and university president as Drew Faust may otherwise be, the choice before her is now clear. This time, the eminent historian finds herself squarely on the wrong side of history. Her credentials suggest that she might cross over. But until she and the Harvard Corporation do, the light that students, alumni, and faculty will shine on this decision will only burn brighter and hotter.

Many words will be spoken about this is before it’s over. But none will be truer than what Harvard student Benjamin Franta said about the prospective victims of preventable climate disasters — our kids and grandkids:

“They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did…”

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[i] On this last evasion, ExxonMobil itself provided the most compelling possible rebuttal in its recent “carbon risk disclosure” statement. Bill McKibben paraphrases accurately here: “We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it.”  To further paraphrase:  “Engage this!


…and the horse you rode in on

March 24, 2014

Guffaw!


War on truth: Which side is Harvard on?

November 9, 2013

College students across the country are calling on their schools’ endowments to divest from fossil fuels.  The campaign is taking off.Harvard Divest

But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue.  In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission:  truth.

The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia.  They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions.  They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet.  They are at war with the truth.

By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason.  The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve:   the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.

President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect.  Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.

This analysis sells Harvard short.  Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus.  At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it.  If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will?  And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?

Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political.  But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to.  By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.

The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating.  The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness.  If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.

What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose:  “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.

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Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.

But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general.  Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.

In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.

Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels.  This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action.  I hope to focus on it soon.  Says Joe:  The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels

For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see:  “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”

And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST:  “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”