(this first appeared in the Providence Phoenix)
By ABEL COLLINS/ 7.3.2013 - In 1988 when I was ten, I presented my Matunuck Elementary School fifth grade science fair project on carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect. That year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed at the UN to assess the impacts of climate change and develope strategies to mitigate and adapt to it. It was also the year the world surpassed 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, the level that scientists have determined is the highest concentration possible for a climate conducive to human civilization.
Fast forward 25 years, and we are collectively dumping 50% more carbon into the air per year. In May, we breached 400ppm and rather than steering toward the maximum global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Centigrade) that was agreed upon in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, we are on course for 10.8 degrees of heating by the end of the century. Think apocalypse and picture much of Rhode Island under water.
For 25 years the handwriting has been on the wall, and we’ve wrung our hands and watched it get worse. It is appropriate now to freak out. Our half-hearted attempts to reduce carbon emissions through federal legislation, individual efficiency action, and shareholder activism have gone nowhere. In fact the political power of the fossil fuel industry is such that our government gives it billions of dollars in subsidies annually. This is an industry that if left to its own devices will sell us enough coal, oil, and gas to obliterate any hope of 3.6 degrees. The proven reserves of the fossil fuel industry are already more than 5 times the 565 gigatons that scientists estimate we can safely burn before 2050, and they’re spending billions exploring for more. WE ARE GIVING THEM MONEY TO SPEED THEM ON!
The task of everyone who wants to leave a planet worth living on to their grandkids is to find a way to keep 80% of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves in the ground and to stop any further dirty energy development. This is where fossil fuel divestment is a valuable tactic and where Rhode Island leads the way.
Divestment is when an institutional fund (like a University’s endowment or a government’s pension fund) or an individual investor dumps their stocks and bonds in a particular company or type of business, usually because of socially responsible investing principles. It was most famously and effectively used in the Anti-apartheid movement in the 70s and 80s and again more recently to fight genocide in Sudan.
The idea behind the fossil fuel divestment movement is to reveal that Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Gas are similarly villainous and to naturally shift money to safer and better places where it can do some good. Whatever shrinking dividends it might pay in soiled money, there are moral reasons not to invest in this industry, and when enough big funds divest there will be an impact on the share prices and less capital for companies like BP and Exxon. Bigger than the immediate threat to stock prices, divestment is a tactic of education and public relations that is not so easy for the fossil fuel industry to drown out with money. It is a grassroots movement spreading virally on social media and across the country on college campuses, and unlike our political class in Washington DC, it can’t be bought.
Big things are happening locally. Under the guidance of Councilman Seth Yurdin and Council President Michael Solomon and inspired by active divestment campaigns at Brown, RISD, and the RI State Schools, Providence lept to the forefront of the movement last Thursday passing a resolution calling for the City’s Investment Board to produce a plan for divesting within five years from the biggest 200 fossil fuel companies. In doing so, Providence became the biggest city on the East Coast and only the second capital city to make such a commitment.
Yurdin explained it well: “To successfully tackle the problem, it's going to require unprecedented efforts - political and cultural. Fossil fuel divestment plays a critical part - targeting the political power of industries that work to block reforms. It also provides a focus for activists and other individuals to organize around. To solve any big problem, people need to figure out a series of small steps to tackle it and start making progress. Divestment is one of those steps."
Providence joins 17 other cities, towns, or counties, as well as 15 other large organizations, and 6 colleges around the country that have made a commitment to fossil fuel divestment since the movement was launched last Fall by writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben. At this rate, it will not take long until the combined funds of these institutions start adding up to real money.
When I approach officials about fossil fuel divestment, I often am told that they’d go for divestment but there are no investment fund managers that execute such a strategy at a large enough scale. To which I say, the more institutions and individuals who make the commitment, the greater is the stated demand for such fund managers, and with billions of dollars on the line, they won’t be lacking long. There is also a real opportunity here to ask/answer the question of what should be invested in to mitigate/adapt to the climate crisis.
Then there is the public relations angle. If the divestment movement succeeds in reminding investors of the villainy of the fossil fuel industry, other tactics in the fight for a stable climate will become more effective. Politicians in Washington may even gain enough courage to do what’s right for the future of the country and the world.
25 years late, there is still time to act. Consider divesting yourself. How about your church or business? Join Fossil Free RI in calling on URI, RIC, and CCRI to divest. Let’s ask the State itself to dump its fossil fuel holdings and to invest in something wiser than self-destruction.