Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns Thriving in D.C. Region

Originally published, 2014 Maryland Solar Tour guide by Ellen Post.

photo by: NRD via flicker (CC)

photo by: NRD via flicker (CC)

The world’s carbon-based economies have a problem. Scientists say we must limit global warming to 2°C to avoid catastrophic climate change. To meet this goal, we can burn only 565 gigatons more carbon. But the fossil fuel industry has 2,765 gigatons of carbon in their proven reserves – nearly 5 times the threshold amount – and every day they’re searching for more. Simply put, their “business plan” is incompatible with a livable planet.

350 Montgomery County (350MoCo) has joined the national campaign spearheaded by 350.org (lead by environmental writer-scholar Bill McKibben) aimed at doing something about this through divestment — the process of pulling institutional investments (here, the MoCo retired employees pension fund) from fossil fuel companies (i.e., oil & gas and coal producers) in order to cease capitalizing the destruction of the planet.

Why divestment? First, it can pack a much-needed political punch. The fossil fuel industry has overwhelming and disproportionate influence in Congress, preventing our elected officials from passing laws that would address climate change by placing a price on carbon pollution. As more and more local governments, universities, and religious institutions choose to divest, the industry will be increasingly stigmatized, creating the political space we need to get climatechange legislation passed — meaning more solar and other clean renewables. Nelson Mandela said divestment was pivotal in ending apartheid in South Africa, and it can succeed here too. Various institutions, including Stanford University, the University of Dayton, and the Unitarian Universalists USA have made commitments this year alone, while Massachusetts and the District of Columbia (led by DC Divest) have pending
legislation, with many sponsors, to divest their employee pension funds. The momentum is growing and world leaders from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Jim Yong Kim (president, World Bank) are calling for it.

photo by: Rainforest Action Network via flicker (CC)

photo by: Rainforest Action Network via flicker (CC)

Divestment also makes economic sense. As the climate worsens, the burning of carbon will have to be curtailed. While stocks are valued based on full exploitation, most known fossil fuel reserves will need to remain in the ground, becoming “stranded assets.” This makes stock prices in this industry potentially much overvalued. Will Montgomery County lose money if it divests? No. Not only do studies make clear that divestment doesn’t sacrifice rate of return, the prospect of those stranded assets makes divestment the more prudent approach.

And there’s a moral reason too. The U.N. has called climate change “an existential threat to human existence,” and yet the industry’s business plan calls for as much exploration for and development of fossil fuels as possible. It’s time to say we will not be a part of this.

350MoCo has sponsored a petition urging the County Council (and County Executive) to direct the Board of Investment Trustees to (1) make no new investments in the fossil fuel industry, and (2) divest the pension funds it oversees of all holdings in the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies – currently over $112 million (and mostly paid for by MoCo taxpayers) – within 5 years. 350MoCo’s campaign is growing and includes the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Sierra Club (MoCo), Environment Maryland and others. For more details, and to sign the 350MoCo petition, go to their website: www.350moco.org.