Divestment from Fossil Fuels is Essential says Bill McKibben

by Duane Nichols on June 29, 2020

McKibben has written a list of books & articles

Bill McKibben Interviewed on the Divestment Movement

Interview by Steve Curwood, Living on Earth, June 26, 2020

INTRODUCTION — Harvard is one of the latest in a series of wealthy institutions around the world announcing steps towards pulling their investments in the fossil fuel industry. But Harvard’s announcement has been called too little, too late. Bill McKibben, author of “The End of Nature” and cofounder of 350.org, joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss Harvard’s announcement, and what the divestment movement has achieved so far. Also, why racial justice goes hand in hand with the fight for a cleaner environment, and the big takeaways that the coronavirus pandemic has for the climate crisis.

Transcript of Interview on Living on Earth, June 26, 2020

CURWOOD: When the establishment is slow to move on a social issue of fairness, campaigners sometimes advocate for the divestment of holdings in companies that they perceive as part of the problem. Many pension funds as well as university and college endowments have signed on. Some universities including Cornell and Georgetown have committed to full divestment within the next ten years, while others including Brown and the University of California system, have already pulled nearly all of their investments from fossil fuels. Now, Harvard University says it will take steps to join the divestment movement and be carbon neutral by 2050 as UN scientists have urged but critics say if Harvard waits until then to reduce its fossil fuel investments it’ll be far too late for the climate. Writer Bill McKibben is the award-winning author of the End of Nature and a co-founder of 350.org, and perhaps the most prominent leader in the fossil fuel divestment movement and he joins me now. Bill, welcome back to Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Boy, how many years ago you wrote The End of Nature, 1989?
MCKIBBEN: That would be 31 years ago, Steve.

CURWOOD: Congratulations! And then fast forward to the moment where you start 350.org with some students from Middlebury College. How did this all come together?
MCKIBBEN: Well, you know, I spent those years after writing The End of Nature, writing more books and talking all the time about climate, thinking that we were engaged in an argument. It took me way too long to figure out that, really, we’d won the argument. We were just losing the fight because the fight wasn’t about data and reason, it was what fights are always about: money and power. And once I figured that out, we were going to have to take on the fossil fuel industry. We started trying to build movements because, you know, historically, that’s the only way to stand up to money and power on that scale. That 350 is was the kind of first iteration of the global climate movement. And now thank god we’ve got Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement and climate striking kids all over the world and on and on and on.

CURWOOD: So let’s go back to what, 2012 is when 350.org really launches Go Fossil Free?
MCKIBBEN: Yeah, I mean, at the time when it started, it was very small affair. I mean, I can remember the day that the very first institution, a college in rural Maine called Unity College with an endowment of $8 million announced that it was divesting from fossil fuel and we were over the moon. We didn’t know that it would grow into $14 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested in part or in whole, or that it would reach the point where as that stock guy, Jim Cramer said on TV in January, no one should invest in Big Oil anymore. Divestment campaigns just gotten too big. You can’t make money anymore out of oil.

CURWOOD: So what do you think enabled the fossil fuel divestment movement to grow despite the uphill battle that it’s faced?
MCKIBBEN: Well, I think there were a couple of things. One was that the kind of math around this became very clear. The divestment movement launched with an analysis, some data showing that the fossil fuel industry had five times as much carbon in its reserves as any scientists thought we could safely burn. And once we had that data in hand, really everybody could see that if the fossil fuel industry’s business plan carried out as they wanted it to, there was no drama, no mystery to this story, the final chapter was writ. I think the other thing though, and maybe most important, was that it let everybody get in the fight. Now, most people don’t have a pipeline going through their backyard and they don’t live next to a coal mine. But everybody is in proximity to a pile of money someplace, a university endowment to city pension fund, a church retirement fund, and those were precisely where people mobilized. You know, as I say, it started one small college in Maine, but by last year, we were, you know, the University of California system divesting 126 billion dollar-pension and endowment fund or the Republic of Ireland divesting all its public accounts or the city of New York divesting its $200 billion pension fund. So not only has it been a question of money, it’s also been a question of many of the most important institutions on earth being forced by activists to break ties with this industry, to say we no longer want to participate with an industry that’s wrecking the planet.

CURWOOD: Of course, one of those activists is Bill McKibben, you. And as I recall, it’s about 2012 you start this tour of college campuses that you labeled do the math. But in fact, who really led this movement of fossil fuel divestment?
MCKIBBEN: Well, an awful lot of it was young people. That’s who’s been at the forefront of the climate movement all along. And there they were in college, a lot of them working hard on fossil fuel divestment. And really, Steve, one of the best outcomes of this whole thing is that those exact same people when they graduated from college and wanted to keep working, went on to found the sunrise movement, and they’re the ones who brought us the Green New Deal. So for instance, Varshini Prakash, who is the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, and really the lead spokesman, I think for the Green New Deal, she was the same young woman who divested University of Massachusetts during her undergraduate years. So one of its many uses was as a terrific training ground for some of the best activists in the country.

CURWOOD: Now, Bill, tell us what exactly does divestment look like? What exactly does a university or a pension fund or a foundation need to do to cleanse itself from investments in the fossil fuel industry?
MCKIBBEN: Well, you know, at first it was a little bit hard for places to do it because investment advisors and tanks didn’t know how to do it. They said, oh, it’s impossible. We’re all our funds are mingled, you’re in index funds, it’s so hard to get out. But relatively quickly, all kinds of funds sprung up that made it easy for people to get out of fossil fuel. So really, I mean, all it takes is your investment advisors making a committed decision to sell those stocks over the course of a few years. And one of the things that made it much easier was that, pretty soon, there was not only a strong moral case, there was also a strong financial case. The institutions that divested from fossil fuel really did well financially, because the fossil fuel industry has been the worst performing part of our economy. And for good reason. I mean, A, their product is destroying the planet. So that attracts regulatory pressure and, B, the sun and win, people have figured out how to provide the same service, energy, just cleaner and cheaper. So it’s a terrible business to be in. Even if you didn’t care about destroying the planet, you’d want to get out of it because it just loses money.

CURWOOD: So how has the divestment movement played out for the fossil fuel industry?
MCKIBBEN: Well, they’ve hated it from the beginning. And it turns out, it wasn’t just what we kind of thought at the start that we were taking away their social license. That’s been very effective. There’s nothing that’s been more effective in spreading the news that their business model equals disaster for the Earth. But it has reached a size and scale where it’s begun to cause them real financial problems. I told you before that Jim Cramer had said on his, you know, stock picking program, that this was the reason that big oil was no longer a good investment. Shell said in their annual report last year, that it did become a material risk to their business, which is good since Shell’s business is a material risk to the planet. I mean, when the coal industry went begging to Congress for a bailout at the beginning of the COVID crisis, they listed divestment as one of the reasons they couldn’t raise money on their own.

CURWOOD: Why is Harvard’s recent carbon neutrality by 2050 announcement controversy for for many activists?
MCKIBBEN: I don’t think that Harvard’s announcement’s controversial for activists, I don’t know anybody who’s anything but disgusted by it. I mean, look, Harvard has long since forfeited the idea that they’re going to be a leader on any of this stuff. And now they’re not even willing to be a follower. Announcing that you’re going to do something in 2050 at this point, Steve, you know, the science of all of this well enough to know that’s not very helpful. The game will be decided long before then we need people stepping up and acting now. And I gotta say Harvard has been a tremendous disappointment, but whatever. The rest of the world is going on around them. The other Ivy’s are, many of them, busily divesting the biggest universities on the planet are divesting like the UC system. And the same day that Harvard made its announcement that it was going to wait till 2050, the only institution with more prestige and status, Oxford, said we’re all in with fossil fuel divestment. So I’ll take that.

CURWOOD: Let’s just go back to Harvard for a moment on that point. Not only students, but faculty at Harvard, say, looking at sea level rise, some of the Harvard campus could be underwater, not so long from now.
MCKIBBEN: Yep. And this is one of the things of course, that makes it so galling that these institutions, some of them continue to invest in fossil fuel. It’s in the research labs of these universities that we found out about climate change. That’s how we know what’s going on. And so it’s just crazy making that they refuse to take that seriously.

CURWOOD: So what’s next for the fossil fuel divestment movement? Do you think?

The earth is now over 400 ppm CO2, well beyond the 350 ppm goal

MCKIBBEN: Well, what’s happening is that not only is it continuing to grow in this sort of selling stock from the fossil fuel industry, but it’s kind of morphed in the last year or two into a big assault on the financial institutions–banks, asset managers, insurance companies that are their financial lifeline. We’re calling this Stop the Money Pipeline. That’s a big coalition of environmental groups from the Sierra Club and 350 to you know, many, many, many groups. A lot of this work pioneered by indigenous groups, especially in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline fight. And you know, it’s still early days in a way, but it’s been successful much more rapidly even than the divestment work, because it builds on it. You know, in the course of the winter, BlackRock, the biggest asset manager on Earth, really the biggest box of money on planet Earth, their CEO, after a big pressure campaign, came out and said, this is going to be the issue that drives all our financial thinking going forward. And indeed, in this spring’s shareholder season, BlackRock at least began to take some votes to force companies of which they own large percentages to start wising up about climate. So this is the next part of that work.

CURWOOD: What kind of criticism have you endured over the years for your climate activism?
MCKIBBEN: Oh, just as one would expect when one’s taking on the most powerful forces in the world, that they’re not going to like it. So there have been plenty of people who’ve gone after me in one way or another. But those kind of things come and go. What endures is the incredibly stark fight that we’re in. What endures is the constantly rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere. And thank God, the constantly rising level of activism designed to turn that around. It’s become, by some measures, maybe the most widespread fight around the world. And I think we’re reaching a turning point. I think that the political power of the fossil fuel industry has begun to wane after a century or two of waxing. And our job is to accelerate that to push hard for really rapid, rapid change.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is a writer, activist and co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org.


Harvard Crimson | “Divest Harvard Calls University’s Carbon-Neutral Endowment Commitment ‘Insufficient’”

The New Yorker | “The Divestment Movement to Combat Climate Change Is All Grown Up”

Bill McKibben writes The New Yorker’s “Climate Crisis” newsletter

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