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.”

What We're Following See More »
WORDS AND PICTURES
White House Looks Back on bin Laden Mission
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
NO BATTLE OVER SEATTLE
SCOTUS Won’t Hear Appeal of Minimum-Wage Law
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a sweeping constitutional challenge to Seattle’s minimum wage law, in what could have been a test case for future legal attacks on similar measures across the country. In a one-line order, the justices declined to hear a case by the International Franchise Association and a group of Seattle franchisees, which had said in court papers that the city’s gradual wage increase to $15 discriminates against them in a way that violates the Constitution’s commerce clause."

Source:
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Sanders Looks to Right the Ship in Indiana
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination sewn up, but Bernie Sanders apparently isn't buying it. Buoyed by a poll showing them in a "virtual tie," Sanders is "holding three rallies on the final day before the state primary and hoping to pull off a win after a tough week of election losses and campaign layoffs." 

Source:
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION IN JUNE
DC to Release Draft Constitution as Part of Statehood Push
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"The New Columbia Statehood Commission—composed of five District leaders including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.'s congressional delegation—voted today to publicly release a draft of a new constitution for an eventual state next Friday, at the Lincoln Cottage." It's the first step in a statehood push this year that will include a constitutional convention in June and a referendum in November.

Source:
ALZHEIMER’S OUTCRY
Will Ferrell Bails on Reagan Movie
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Amid outcry by President Reagan's children, actor Will Ferrell has pulled out of a movie that makes light of Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. A spokesperson for Ferrell said, “The ‘Reagan’ script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project."

Source:
×