Books

09.21.13

The Next Step in the Divestment Fight: Bill McKibben

Nearly a year after he started a campaign to have universities divest from fossil fuel investments, Bill McKibben says it’s time to take it to the next level. His new book is Oil and Honey.

So now the real divestment fight begins.

We launched the drive to get colleges, cities, and churches to fight climate change by selling their fossil fuel stocks about ten months ago, and it met with immediate, unexpected success: a New York Times article on the drive turned into the most e-mailed story of the week, and before long over 300 college campuses had active campaigns underway. The Nation called it the fastest growing student movement in decades, and before long older folks were emulating their juniors: city governments from Seattle to San Francisco to Providence announced they were committed to divesting their fossil fuel stocks, and the nation’s original Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, did the same. Divestment’s coming much faster than it did a generation ago, when the issue was apartheid.

But now the pushback has begun. The six colleges that divested last year—Unity, Sterling, Green Mountain, Hampshire, College of the Atlantic, and San Francisco State—were places with deep commitment to the environment. Now schools with a slightly less profound commitment have begun to say no. Vassar and Middlebury were the first to announce they weren’t yet ready to divest, arguing it might, you know, cost them some money.

This comes as no surprise—it took four or five years of hard work to get most schools to sell their South African stock, even with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu pushing hard. (Some never came around—Harvard, for instance).

And in fact it comes as something of a blessing. Yes, it would be nice if everyone did the right thing right away, but that’s not very realistic. So now we have a chance to really tell the story, to make the case.

That story is a powerful one. As everyone from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency has now explained, the fossil fuel industry has five times as much carbon in its reserves of coal, oil and natural gas as we can safely burn. Five times, that is, the amount that would take us past a two degree increase in global average temperature. It is, in other words, a rogue industry: if it carries out its business plan, the planet tanks.  We can’t bankrupt them, but by divestment we can help morally bankrupt them, reducing their power to set the agenda in DC and elsewhere. As with apartheid, this is one tactic that can accomplish much.

We love our schools, but we want them to live up to the values they represent.

Not only is fossil fuel a rogue industry, it’s also bad bet. Those carbon numbers make clear that the industry sits on a bubble, with $20 trillion worth of fuel it can’t sell if the planet ever takes even minimal action against climate change. That’s why, for instance, billionaire hedge fund tycoon Tom Steyer wrote an urgent letter to boards of trustees telling them they had not just a moral but a fiduciary duty to sell those stocks. Already they’ve done damage by holding them: an independent study commissioned by the Associated Press earlier this year showed that if a billion dollar endowment had divested fossil fuel stocks a decade ago, it would have made an extra $119 million over the last decade. At a school like Middlebury, where I hang my hat, that would have meant hundreds of extra scholarships for needy students.

So students, and faculty and alumni, will now get a chance to tell those stories, to tell them in urgent and powerful ways. At Bowdoin last spring students built a mock refugee camp in the college quadrangle: if you’re comfortable investing in companies that create climate refugees, they argued, then we should probably have to live that way too. At the Rhode Island School of Design, students very politely took over the president’s office, hanging banners out the window: “We may be art students, but we can do the math.”

And this autumn, alumni across the nation are beginning a new campaign. They’re not boycotting their alma maters, they’re just asking that their donations be put in escrow until they divest. I’m sending Middlebury, an institution I am proud to be part of, a check for $50,000, the proceeds of a prize; I look forward to the day when they’ll be able to put it to use to support the college’s new School of the Environment. But it makes no sense to support that noble endeavor by investing in Exxon and Peabody Coal. We love our schools, but we want them to live up to the values they represent. We love our schools, and we want to be proud of them.

Just as they were a generation ago, these demands will be hard on trustees. Not because they represent a financial threat, but because they represent a psychological one. Look, for instance, at the Middlebury board. It has 32 members—and 16 of them come from the infinitesimally tiny portion of the planet that makes its living in high finance. They are remarkably good and generous people, giving of their time and money, and they and the administration have done a fine job: Middlebury was just named the fourth best liberal arts college in America.  But they come from a world that insists investments are morally neutral, that finance is fundamentally separate from values.

That doesn’t fit with what the faculty teaches—not in physics, and not in philosophy. And so eventually I think they will divest. If we make the case with enough conviction and good faith, we will prevail. In the meantime, it’s one of the great teachable moments in the history of higher ed. Every freshman (and every alumni) can learn an important lesson in the semesters ahead: global warming is a horrible threat, and acting together we can do something about it.