Divestment in Fossil Fuels Pushed in Response to Climate-Change Inaction

Harvard University President Drew Faust.
National Journal
Clare Foran
Nov. 29, 2013, 12:30 a.m.

Reg­u­la­tions to lim­it car­bon emis­sions are a key in­gredi­ent in Pres­id­ent Obama’s second-term cli­mate-change agenda, but en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists say poli­cy­makers still haven’t gone far enough to com­bat glob­al warm­ing. A grass­roots move­ment has bubbled up in re­sponse to put pres­sure on pub­lic and private in­sti­tu­tions and mu­ni­cip­al gov­ern­ments to end in­vest­ments in fossil fuels.

The past year has seen a groundswell of sup­port for such di­vest­ment. Stu­dent groups and en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists have launched close to 400 cam­paigns call­ing on Amer­ic­an uni­versit­ies and col­leges to with­draw sup­port for fossil fuels by pulling their in­vest­ments in com­pan­ies with large coal, nat­ur­al gas, and pet­ro­leum re­serves.

And polit­ic­al dis­il­lu­sion­ment has been a ma­jor driver of the move­ment. “We have a gov­ern­ment that has been taken over by the fossil-fuel in­dustry, so we’re go­ing to pres­sure the fossil-fuel in­dustry it­self,” Chloe Maxmin, a Har­vard Uni­versity stu­dent in­volved in a cam­paign to per­suade the uni­versity to di­vest from fossil fuels, told The Wash­ing­ton Post.

En­vir­on­ment­al groups have also fo­cused on polit­ic­al in­ac­tion in mak­ing the case for di­vest­ment. “Not only has Con­gress not taken up this is­sue but mem­bers are act­ively work­ing against ef­forts to reg­u­late green­house gases,” Matt Gra­son, one of the founders of DC Di­vest, a cam­paign to en­cour­age the Dis­trict of Columbia to di­vest in fossil fuels, told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

DC Di­vest has made this line of at­tack a cent­ral part of its cam­paign. “If we know we need to stop burn­ing fossil fuels, why don’t we?” the group’s web­site asks. “Be­cause fossil fuel com­pan­ies spend bil­lions to lobby Con­gress to do noth­ing and con­fuse the pub­lic about the ef­fects of their products. And it’s work­ing.”

Some politi­cians are act­ing at the loc­al level, however. In April, Seattle May­or Mike Mc­Ginn led a co­ali­tion of may­ors and city coun­cil mem­bers from nine oth­er cit­ies, in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco; Boulder, Colo.; and Madis­on, Wis., in mak­ing a com­mit­ment to work to­ward fossil-fuel di­vest­ment in their re­spect­ive cit­ies.

Closer to home, mem­bers of the D.C. Coun­cil are also push­ing for di­vest­ment. Coun­cil Chair­man Phil Mendel­son, a Demo­crat, and a num­ber of oth­er coun­cil mem­bers in­tro­duced di­vest­ment le­gis­la­tion in Septem­ber that was sub­ject to a hear­ing this week.

The bill in ques­tion would re­quire the city to pull its hold­ings in the 200 pub­licly traded com­pan­ies with the largest fossil-fuel re­serves from the Dis­trict’s re­tire­ment funds and Health An­nu­ity Trust. If it passes, the meas­ure would be largely sym­bol­ic. But it would send a strong sig­nal that the polit­ic­al will ex­ists to ad­vance the cause, act­iv­ists say.

The road to di­vest­ment is rocky, however.

Oil and gas in­dustry stake­hold­ers have cri­ti­cized the move­ment and fin­an­cial ad­visers have de­bated wheth­er or not di­vest­ment is well-con­sidered fisc­al policy.

Har­vard Pres­id­ent Drew Faust made head­lines this fall when she an­nounced that the uni­versity, which holds the largest en­dow­ment of any U.S. aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tion, would not di­vest in fossil-fuel com­pan­ies.

In an open let­ter, Faust ar­gued that uni­versit­ies should steer clear of polit­ic­al en­tan­gle­ments.

“We should … be very wary of steps in­ten­ded to in­stru­ment­al­ize our en­dow­ment in ways that would ap­pear to po­s­i­tion the Uni­versity as a polit­ic­al act­or rather than an aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tion,” she com­men­ted.

On the polit­ic­al end of the spec­trum, a de­cision to di­vest in the Dis­trict of Columbia could also face fed­er­al road­b­locks. After the coun­cil passes le­gis­la­tion, Con­gress has a 30-day win­dow dur­ing which time it could pass a joint res­ol­u­tion to over­turn the bill. If the pres­id­ent ap­proved the res­ol­u­tion it would ef­fect­ively deny the bill a chance to be­come law.

Even if this were to hap­pen, however, it would still in­crease vis­ib­il­ity around the is­sue.

“If D.C. were to di­vest I think it would have na­tion­al and even in­ter­na­tion­al im­plic­a­tions,” Gra­son said, adding: “And if Con­gress were to take up the is­sue, it would force a na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion that would go far bey­ond the na­tion’s cap­it­al.”

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