On the recent Do the Math tour, Bill McKibben, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, author Naomi Klein and other speakers and a team of organizers launched a campaign calling on churches, colleges, and others to divest their stock portfolios of investments in fossil fuel corporations — as was done in the the 1970s and 1980s as part of delegitimizing the apartheid regime in South Africa. We support this. McKibben, in Washington, D.C.: “The fossil fuel industry has behaved with such recklessness … that at this point they deserve to lose their social license, their veneer of respectability.” Klein: “It’s our side that has been kidding itself. For a long time the environmental movement behaved as if climate change was the one cause that didn’t have an enemy — that it was just a matter of getting the information out or finding the right technical fix and then everyone would realize that we’re all in this together. But here’s the thing: we do have an enemy.”
Go Fossil Free divestment campaign
Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Wraps Up First Semester on 189 Campuses
OAKLAND, CA — A new campaign to push colleges and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry has spread like wildfire to over 190 campuses across the country in just over a month. Now, as students head home for the holidays, organizers are celebrating some significant early victories and looking forward to a busy spring semester. …
See New York Times: To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios
Following are excerpts from our recording and transcription from the Do the Math Tour event, Warner Theater, Washington, D.C., November
Bill McKibben, 350.org:
It’s high time we went on offense. What we are trying to do is make the case that the fossil fuel industry has behaved with such recklessness – they’ve known for many years what’s going on. You want proof they’ve known what’s going on? Look at them lining up for permits to drill in the Arctic once they’ve melted it. They’ve known the truth about global warming for a very long time. They have behaved with such recklessness that at this point they deserve to lose their social license, their veneer of respectability.
There was a time — I see a few other people in this room who are old enough to remember — there was a time when the tobacco companies were perfectly respectable — and then we began to understand that they had lied and cheated. What we need to get across is that, as the tobacco companies were to individual health, so the fossil fuel industry is to the safety of the planet.
There’s another big piece of news on the divestment front this week. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is now calling on his city to strip fossil fuels from its two main pension funds. According to the city’s finance director, Seattle has $17.6 million invested in Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as smaller investments in other oil and gas companies. Mayor McGinn sent a letter to the city’s pension fund managers on Friday calling for them to move their money elsewhere:
To the members of the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System Board:
I write to you today to ask that you refrain from future investments in fossil fuel companies and begin the process of divesting our pension portfolio from those companies. I recognize that this process will require a thorough evaluation of the portfolio’s performance, assets, and investment strategies. City staff stand ready to assist you in this work.
So, how do we go on offense? We have several tools to use. First, we are going to talk about divestment. We ask, or we demand, that institutions like colleges and churches sell their stock in these fossil fuel companies. The logic could not be more brutally simple. If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. The way the world is set up none of us can avoid using a certain amount of fossil fuel day-to-day. You might want to take a train, but if there isn’t a train you can’t take it. But all of us can figure out how to avoid profiting from it, supporting it, becoming a part of it, making it worse.
This argument has worked in a big way exactly one time in American history, about a generation ago, when the apartheid regime still ruled in South Africa. We need to talk about that story for a moment, because it’s been sometimes forgotten — not by everybody, of course. There are people in the room who are old enough to remember when America had its own legal apartheid. But there are also people young enough in this room that they were born, thank heaven, after justice had triumphed in South Africa. So I’ve asked Reverend Yearwood if he would come out and just remind us of what was really quite a beautiful chapter in our history.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Hip Hop Caucus:
In 1988, when scientists were sounding the first warnings about climate change, the nation of South Africa was still legally divided. Black folk couldn’t move freely, they had to carry passes, they were herded in desolate reservations. Their leaders were murdered by the police, like Steve Biko, or were stuck in prison, like Nelson Mandela. And neither the U.S. government nor U.S. citizens responded. We considered the white-led government an ally. And our corporations made lots of money there.
Now the things that changed were you and me. People in communities, on campuses, in churches, in synagogues, and mosques around the country stood up. They launched a massive divestment campaign. It took incredible, and I mean incredible, amounts of effort. People had to persuade boards of trustees to sell stock even when those trustees said it would cost them money. None of it came easy, to occupy dean’s offices and boycott recruiters from companies, and stage giant rallies. They had to go to jail by the thousands.
But they kept struggling at it, and quicker than you might imagine it started to work. By the mid 1980s over 155 campuses, including some of the most famous in this country, had divested from South Africa. About 26 state governments and 22 counties and 90 cities, including some of the biggest, took their money from the banks and they said, ‘we will not do business in that country any more.’ The people stood up and a change happened.
Now let me be clear, this fight will be harder in certain ways. We all know how the fossil fuel industry works – some of them are here today — welcome to our rally. The fossil fuel industry is even more powerful than the apartheid government of South Africa. But in many ways it’s the same fight, because ultimately this fight is about moral battles, moral battles that we must and we can win. And there is also one way that makes this case easier for us than the apartheid battle, because this is a fight that is in our interests. And we must fight to go on.
Now let me say this, and let me use my position. I’m now the president of the Hip Hop Caucus and many of you have helped that organization grow. You have, because 4 or 5 years ago when I was coming through from Katrina and we were dealing with that, I said we can’t have segregated movements. We can’t have the police brutality rally be all black, or the immigration be all brown, or the gay and lesbian rallies be always gays and lesbians. It has to be all of us. …
We won that election in 2008. We won that election. And because we came together again we won that election just a few days ago. That’s our win.
So my position now as the President of the Hip Hop Caucus, and also now as co-chair of the Black Leadership Forum. … I will call on my friends, and I know it’s very difficult, a lot of these fossil fuel companies finance a lot of the programs, and they finance the campaigns and they finance conferences. I am calling on every black institution to divest from the fossil fuel industry today. I’m calling on the 105 historical black colleges and universities across this land to divest from the fossil fuel industry today. I am calling on every member of the congressional black caucus to turn their checks back over and to divest from the fossil fuel companies. And finally I am calling on the first black President of the United States to divest and move away from that industry.
This is a very special occasion. We’re starting something really big here. I think you can feel it. Now I’ve been involved in a few boycott movements over the years. When I was a university student we occupied the president’s office demanding that our school divest from South Africa. And I’ve supported boycotts against sweatshops, abusive farming practices, and military occupations. These were, and many still are, amazing movements. But this is different.
In those cases we were trying to correct something specific in a company’s business practice: to get it to start paying its workers fairly, to stop busting unions, or to stop doing business with rogue regimes. After the company fixed the problem, as far as we were concerned they could go on with business as usual. You know what I mean. If we go after Apple it’s because we want to company to pay its Chinese workers a decent wage, not because we want them to stop making iPhones.
But with the fossil fuel companies, it’s not that there is some slight problem with their business plan that needs correcting. It’s that their business plan, the very core of it, is the problem. Because their business plan is to wreck the planet.
That makes them a very special case, even within the realm of really bad business people. The only possible analogy is the companies that manufacture nuclear weapons, but at least those companies tell us their weapons won’t actually be used to destroy the planet. They are just kind of there as a deterrent. Fossil fuel companies offer no such assurances. In fact, they are counting on their particular brand of weapons being used, against your futures, against the climate, because burning carbon is the whole point of digging it up.
Now some people claim that we shouldn’t go after the fossil fuel companies because the ‘oil companies are us.’ They say the guy who drove a car to this event is just as guilty as Exxon. Or maybe even more guilty, because according to the laws of supply and demand consumers are supposedly demanding that they dig up all that carbon to power our lifestyles. And it’s true, we could all be doing more to curb our consumption. But it’s also true that most people would be perfectly happy running their lives on renewable energy if they could.
It’s actually a pretty good analogy. Just like getting off drugs, the hard work of carbon detox is ultimately ours. No one can do it for us. But in order for us to have a fighting chance of kicking the habit we have to get the pushers out of our faces. And the pushers are the fossil fuel companies, the global carbon cartel. Going after them won’t solve the problem, but it will create the necessary conditions for us to solve it ourselves.
It’s not like we aren’t trying. Again and again we’ve seen popular movements rise up to combat climate change. We all get fired up — and we start to recycle, and we start to bicycle, and we work like crazy to elect politicians who promise to build an economy based on green jobs and to pass comprehensive energy reform. And we invest our hopes in big environmental summits in Rio or Copenhagen. Again and again, over the past two-and-a-half decades, we have mobilized to make individual changes and to demand systemic ones.
And again and again this movement has somehow lost momentum — petered out. Why is that? It’s not because deep down in our collective unconscious we really have some sort of death wish. The problem is that our profound desire to protect life on Earth is a direct threat to Exxon and Shell’s desire to remain the most profitable companies in, as Bill puts it, “the history of money.” Their stock price is based on always having in reserve as much as they have in production. That means the very thing we must do to meet the climate challenge, stop digging, is the very thing they cannot contemplate without staring in the face of their own demise.
And by the way, it’s not just corporations. Entire countries, the ones that heavily depend on oil revenues, end up waging a wholesale war on truth, attacking scientists and environmental groups simply because the truth challenges their economic paradigm. Faced with such a serious threat to their bottom line, these forces fight like they mean it.
Every time the climate movement has gotten its act together, the fossil fuel interests have sent powerful lies into the culture and bankrolled their endless repetition: that climate change is a hoax, that climate action will destroy the economy, that you have to choose between good jobs or a healthy planet. They have bought our politicians and blanketed our airways. And they have attacked our movements from all sides. They have defamed us, infiltrated us, and tried to buy us off.
In short, they have behaved as if they are at war, because they are. We really do want an end to their business model, not because we hate them, but because our survival depends on it. It depends on getting them to leave proven reserves in the ground.
It’s our side that has been kidding itself. For a long time the environmental movement behaved as if climate change was the one cause that didn’t have an enemy — that it was just a matter of getting the information out or finding the right technical fix and then everyone would realize that we are all in this together. But here’s the thing: we do have an enemy. We have a few of them, actually. The good news is we know exactly who they are and as of right now, we’re going after them precisely where it hurts them most.
Remember this moment. This is where we got serious.
One Response to Fossil fuel divestment campaign: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
Fabulous stuff! Great words and vision from Bill & Naomi!
- Bill McKibben: Planetary Emergency (guernicamag.com)
- Seattle Mayor Calls For Divesting City Pension Funds From Fossil Fuels (thinkprogress.org)
- Will Colleges Kick Coal Out of Their Stockings? (climatedesk.org)
- Roxane Assaf: Fossil Fuel Fury: Climate Change Activist Barnstorms Through 21 Towns Inciting Fiscal Revolution (huffingtonpost.com)
- Santa Monica City Hall To Look Into Fossil Fuel Investments (smmirror.com)
- Chicago Area Peace Action on Huffington Post yesterday on Do the Math Climate Crisis Tour (peaceblog.wordpress.com)