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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 28-4-13

Dump Fossil Fuel Investments
By Carey L. Biron, Inter Press Service, 27 April 2013
Nearly a dozen U.S. cities have announced their interest in withdrawing
municipal investments from fossil fuel companies, joining a fast-growing
movement among colleges and universities that supporters say is allowing
citizens concerned with environmental degradation and global climate change
to act in lieu of federal action from the U.S. Congress.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco board of supervisors unanimously voted to
recommend that the city's retirement fund formally "divest" of any
oil-and-coal holdings, some 583 million dollars' worth. Next week, the
nearby town of Berkeley is set to vote on a resolution that would request
the enormous California state pension system to do the same.
Now, these initiatives have coalesced into a nascent movement. On Thursday,
11 mayors and city councils stated that they would be urging their cities to
divest from investments in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, while
advocates say similar petitions are reportedly taking hold in 100 additional
cities and states.
"This started [Thursday] with eight cities and by the end of the day we were
already up to 11, and we've seen more interest since then," James Irwin, a
senior associate with the Mayors Innovation Project (MIP), a national
network that is organising the new city divestment push, told IPS.  (The
group's municipal divestment guide can be found here.)
"That was after only a light first wave of outreach, so we expect to see
more joining on now that the movement has begun," he continues.
"This is part of building a moral argument that profiting from the wreckage
of climate is wrong, that we shouldn't be benefiting from climate change.
Hopefully, this can be the start of a narrative highlighting how these
companies are bad actors."
By any measure, the divestment initiative has taken off surprisingly
quickly. Substantive discussion began with regards to university investments
only late last year, spearheaded particularly by the environmental advocacy
group, and already petitions have reportedly sprung up at 300
Expanding the movement to cities was an obvious next step, and related talks
began in January. The following month, the city of Seattle - whose mayor has
been at the forefront of the movement - announced that it would be
encouraging its two-billion-dollar retirement fund to shed its stocks in
companies that contribute to climate change.
"It's the cities that will take the brunt of climate change, and that's
whether we get any federal or state funding - it's up to us," Larry
MacDonald, mayor of the small town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, one of the
municipalities that has pledged to divest its retirement fund, told IPS.
"A lot of the mayors I've spoken with feel very strongly that we only have
one chance to act on this issue, and that we really can't wait for federal
or state officials. That said, of course, it's also easier at the local
level than at the federal level to make and act on these types of
Trickle-up theory
Thus far, the majority of cities that have expressed interest in the
divestment initiative have been politically left-leaning. Yet MIP's Irwin
says he's confident this is solely an early dynamic, and points to similar
experiences in the past.
"We very much view this as the vanguard - it's the liberal college towns
that often lead on issues that end up becoming mainstream, for instance
recycling and today's focus on green energy," he says.
"These are also the cities where the mayors feel the safest, but really
there's very little downside politically, especially if you look at this
issue economically. Staying invested in fossil fuels won't make sense, for
instance, when federal authorities finally do get serious on climate change
- say, by putting a price on carbon."
Indeed, on Thursday the U.S. Senate Finance Committee published a white
paper that discusses the possibility of instituting a national "carbon tax".
For now, however, such proposals are still considered dead on arrival at the
federal level, but in that void local-level officials are increasingly
seeing both an opportunity and a responsibility.
"We certainly believe that cities are where innovation is happening - the
politics are less difficult and there is often a greater concentration of
people who want to see action on certain issues," Irwin says.
"Over the last decade, we've seen mayors taking many important steps on
climate change, and those activities have trickled up to the national level.
This new movement is clearly about laying the foundation for working on the
larger state and federal levels later."
Taking its inspiration from the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s, when
some 155 U.S. schools came out against the South African government, the
current divestment momentum began on college and university campuses. In
addition to hundreds of schools currently being petitioned to withdraw their
fossil fuel-related investments, dozens have reportedly started
administrative processes to look more closely at the issue.
Endowments at these schools can be tens of billions of dollars each, and
thus represent very significant potential leverage for those wanting to make
both symbolic and substantive statements on behalf of environmental impact
and climate change. Further, many of these institutions have notably
forward-looking, altruistic mission statements.
"With Congress and international climate talks deadlocked, universities are
at the front of this issue in that they have such high visibility - we have
the opportunity to break this deadlock and create the political will
necessary to help people take action on climate change," Daniel Sherrell, a
student leader with the Brown Divest Coal Campaign, at Brown University,
told IPS.
"Right now, Brown's investments in coal run counter to the university's
commitments to human rights. Those investments are also out of alignment
with the science coming out of our own departments, which have consistently
reinforced previous findings on human-caused climate change."
A special committee on divestment recently suggested that Brown withdraw its
investments in the country's 15 largest coal companies. That recommendation
may be voted upon by late May, and on Friday Sherrell participated in a
preparatory subcommittee meeting to smooth the way ahead of the vote.
"Universities are about investing in both the future and the future of
students - it doesn't make sense to be spending money on my education if
that money is also being spent on something that will threaten that future,"
he says.
"More fundamentally, universities have long been a source of societal
dialogue, and we're trying to lead here. The more that cities, universities
and individuals start standing up and saying this doesn't make sense
anymore, the more Congress will hear. This can shift the dialogue."