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Notes from a Small Planet: Global Divestment Day

Mimi Bluestone
January 21, 2015

February 13-14

by Mimi Bluestone

PastedGraphic-1FOSSIL FUELS ARE THE VILLAINS of our climate saga, the culprits that must be vanquished if we have any hope of maintaining a planet that’s hospitable to human life. Renewable energy sources can rescue us from this fiery dragon, and these renewable knights are real. Solar energy employs more people in the United States than coal and gas combined. Amazon just announced a deal to fund a wind farm to power its cloud computing. Denmark is on the way to generating half its electricity from wind by 2020. (To read about Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush going solar, click here.)

But the fossil fuel monster just isn’t dying fast enough for us to prevent unthinkable levels of global warming. Low gas prices may discourage some of the more costly energy-extraction projects on the drawing boards, but low prices don’t discourage reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies’ current assets include in-the-ground energy reserves that, if burned, are guaranteed to raise global temperatures beyond human endurance. And these companies keep looking for more.

It’s time to starve the beast.

Friday, February 13 and Saturday, February 14 will be the first Global Divestment Days. The campaign is organized by Fossil Free, an international network set up by that’s working to get organizations and governments to shed investments in fossil fuel companies. Global Divestment Day’s approach is to think globally and act locally: there will be events all over the world. You can go to the web site to see if there’s an event near you, or you can use the site to set up an event of your own. My group, 350NYC, is organizing a rally that in lower Manhattan at 12:30; the location announcement awaits police permitting.

THE LOGIC BEHIND FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT is that fossil fuel companies are the main obstacle to confronting climate change. Institutions that serve the public good should not profit from planetary disaster. And fossil fuel companies should not be rewarded for their destructive actions. The movement for divestment highlights these companies’ culpability for pushing a product that, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, can’t be used without endangering us all.

Divestment, of course, is not a new approach. It was used most successfully in the 1980s against the apartheid system in South Africa. Divestment from companies doing business in South Africa became an invaluable tool that helped isolate the South African government internationally, forcing it to end apartheid.

Today, nearly 200 organizations have committed to divest some or all of their fossil fuel holdings, including universities, local governments, religious institutions and charitable foundations. Probably the most symbolically meaningful institution to divest is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the foundation built on the family’s Standard Oil fortune.

Fossil Free is urging institutions that have fossil fuel investments — such as the Teachers Retirement System, the pension fund for my union, the United Federation of Teachers — to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies and, within five years, to divest from direct ownership and ownership of any mixed funds that include the top 200 fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds. The list of companies comes from the Carbon Underground, a group that ranks public companies based on the carbon content of their fossil fuel reserves.

Should I worry that my pension fund could lose money if it divests from fossil fuels? Actually, I see more reason to worry if my pension fund doesn’t divest. It’ll be hard to enjoy my pension if my city is underwater, or if I know my own children and the students I’ve taught will suffer even more drastic climate change. Clearly there’s a moral imperative to divest.

But there’s a strong financial argument too. Fossil fuels are obviously a highly volatile investment. And given the rise of renewable energy, we can expect that volatility to increase as demand for fossil fuels shrinks. There’s talk about a Carbon Bubble, as some people are calling the fossil fuels that won’t be burned, partly as a result of renewables and partly because of increasing international regulation of fossil fuels. Every international agreement to restrict fossil fuels, every solar panel installed or windmill built is another puncture in the bubble. We saw what happened to people who got caught investing in real estate during the housing bubble. The popping of the carbon bubble could be even more disruptive to the U.S. and world economy. It seems like the best idea is to divest before the prices go down any further!

Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the fossil fuel companies the Carbon Pharoahs. It’s time to free ourselves from these tyrants. Support Global Divestment Day. Visiting the website is a good place to start.

Mimi Bluestone is a teacher and writer who lives in Brooklyn.