Monday, 24 June 2013

Can we really divest fossil fuels?

There is a student movement sweeping college campuses in the US. It calls for colleges to pull their investments - or to divest - from fossil fuel companies.

At least 300 schools have active campaigns - some bigger than others, and some further along than others, but still 300 is impressive.

Their manifesto is an article by the journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben which appeared in Rolling Stone magazine almost a year ago. It argues that divestment on college campuses helped bring about the end of Apartheid, so why not climate change?

McKibben has just finished a sell-out tour of colleges in the US sand Australia, which received a lot of media attention. You can hear longer reports from NPR's Elizabeth Shogren and This American Life.

McKibben argues that the fossil fuel industry has gone rogue because its raison d'ĂȘtre runs against what is good for the planet. His point is backed up by these simple facts:
  • The nations of the world have all said they want to stop the global temperature rising any more than 2 degree celsius. 
  • In order to achieve that goal, we can only burn a fifth of all the fossil fuels we know about.
The problem is that those fossil fuel reserves are valuable. Even though they're still in the ground, even though they could be years away from being sold at a pump or burned in your boiler, it is the promise of one day extracting them that gives fossil fuel companies their bread and butter. 

Here's how the British economist Nicholas Stern puts it:
There is therefore a profound contradiction between declared public policy and the valuations of these listed companies, based on their fossil fuel reserves, which appear to assume that the world will not get anywhere near its targets for managing climate change.
Some economists have called this the "great carbon bubble". That's because if you assume that only a fifth of all fossil fuels will be burnt, then the companies must be really overvalued. By some estimates, the write-down in their value would trigger a financial crash ten times greater than the the subprime crisis of a few years ago.

By McKibben's own admission, a few college funds are not going to bring oil companies to their knees, but they are generating a lot of bad publicity, which companies respond to.

One student, writing in the Harvard Political Review, said:
While ineffective in a financial sense, [divestment] can have an impact by shaping public discourse. If universities across the country divested from fossil fuels, this would again be the case. Exxon Mobil’s sky-high valuation is unlikely to come down any time soon; however, the gesture could help to reignite public debate on climate change and energy security.
McKibben and his organisation are also targeting not just to colleges but local and state governments, and religious institutions. There are other initiatives that are trying to help much larger funds move towards a lower carbon portfolio. And, in the US, there is advice out there on how to divest your own savings.
Here are some links to discover more:

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