Despite all of the sound and fury set off by the campaign to divest fossil fuels — and there has been plenty — Bill McKibben, 350.org and their allies have persuaded only a handful of big institutions to sell off the coal, oil and gas holdings in their endowments. They’ve had little or no direct effect on publicly-traded oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and none on the government-owned oil companies of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq that are shielded from chants of rag-tag college students telling them to “leave it in the ground.”
That said, by any measure other than financial, the divestment campaign has been a big success.
That’s the argument I make in a story about divestment, published today by YaleEnvironment360 under the headline Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement May Ultimately Win. Here’s how it begins:
Nestled in Vermont’s bucolic Champlain valley, Middlebury College is a seedbed of environmental activism. Middlebury students started 350.org, the environmental organization that is fighting climate change and coordinating the global campaign for fossil-fuel divestment. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmentalist who is spearheading the campaign, has taught there since 2001. Yet Middlebury has declined to sell the oil, gas, and coal company holdings in its $1 billion endowment.
McKibben’s alma mater, Harvard University — which has a $36 billion endowment, the largest of any university — also has decided not to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Indeed, virtually all of the United States’ wealthiest universities, foundations, and public pension funds have resisted pressures to sell their stakes in fossil fuel companies. And while a handful of big institutional investors — Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Stanford University, and AXA, a French insurance company — have pledged to sell some of their coal investments, coal companies account for less than 1 percent of the value of publicly traded stocks and an even smaller sliver of endowments.
Put simply, the divestment movement is not even a blip on the world’s capital markets.
Yet McKibben says the campaign is succeeding “beyond our wildest possible dreams.”
Why? Well, you can read the rest of the story to find out, but in essence, the divestment campaign has in short order built a vibrant global climate movement, which is exactly what McKibben and his allies set out to do nearly three years ago. (See Do the Math: Bill McKibben takes on big oil, my 2012 interview with him.) Hundreds of US college campuses, cities and foundations have been forced to respond to divestment demands. They’ve debated and analyzed the climate threat. And, as the story explains, even when institutions decide not to divest — often for good reason, I might add — they almost always do something. What’s more, the campaign has spread wildly, er, widely to Europe and Asia, thanks to social media, and it has taken on a life of its own, as a decentralized but loosely connected series of campaigns that are gathering momentum.
As a practical matter, divestment has re-opened an important conversation about whether and how institutions and individuals are investing with their values in mind. Last week, writing on my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, I asked: Why won’t foundations divest fossil fuels? Most of the big ones have not, but they are all talking about “impact investing,” that is, aligning more of their endowment money with their programming goals. Some of that money is flowing to climate solutions including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.And it would not surprise me to see one or two big foundations–Bloomberg Philanthropies, maybe?–decide to divest.