GUEST OPINION: Divest from fossil fuel companies

  • The Rocky Mountains serve as a backdrop as crude oil is pumped from the ground north of Denver near Erie, Colo., on Friday, Nov. 20, 1998. As world leaders cross swords over oil supplies and consumers gleefully buy cheap gas, producers in the Rocky Mountains are fighting for survival. Small independent firms and major companies alike are laying off workers and selling off property to try to stay afloat until market conditions improve. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Recently, the California State Teachers' Retirement System, the nation's largest teacher pension fund, decided to divest from the makers of guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The California Public Employees' Retirement System reportedly may follow suit, as Treasurer Bill Lockyer has recommended. This decision, brought about after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., brings divestment back into the national conversation, from which it has been largely absent since an effective divestment campaign weakened South Africa's apartheid government in the 1980s. Reclaiming society's ability to inject matters of conscience into the market is necessary, though it may seem heresy to some to tinker with what's profitable.

I can't help but note the parallels with another nascent divestment campaign run by the Sierra Club and 350.org, encouraging large investors such as universities and pension funds to divest from another lucrative business whose profits lead to needless deaths: the fossil fuel industry. Its determination to burn the coal, oil and gas in its reserves is killing people just as much as automatic weapons, if not more.

Why divestment instead of legislation? Organizers point out that going through the federal government, which was lobbied by these industries to the tune of $167 million in 2011, is too slow and compromised for the current rate of global temperature rise. They argue, and I agree, that it's time to use the plain math of this situation to target what's most important to these companies: their stock prices.

If we can keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, we can avoid the most catastrophic projections of climate scientists, who estimate that humans can put roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and stay below 2 degrees. However, the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies (and oil-rich countries), is five times greater than that.

Something has to give.

Betting that the public's values rest with a climate that doesn't lead to mass extinction, starvation and general chaos, the divestment campaign's demands are simple: no new investments in fossil fuel companies, and, within five years, divest from direct ownership and any funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

We need to divest from the idea of profiting from wrecking our planet sooner or later. The difference between "sooner" or "later" is how many degrees we're willing to allow the Earth's temperature to rise.

Beyond the moral argument, this campaign also highlights an economic pragmatism based on the following logic: If profits rely on five times the amount of hydrocarbons that science tells us is safe to burn, then their stock prices are inflated at least five times, and investors need to know.

Across this country, individuals, municipal governments and pension funds are divesting from the lethal products responsible for the deaths of the victims in Newtown. More than 180 colleges, as well as the city of Seattle, have made the pledge to shift their investments into life-affirming stocks, and CalPERS and CalSTRS should too.

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