Thursday, December 20, 2012

Divestment 3: Hip Hop & Push Back

I bumped into the endowment manager of a small liberal arts college at a holiday party. I asked about the practical concerns some have expressed about the feasibility of divesting from fossil fuels, when endowments allocate assets to various management funds who invest in co-mingled funds, and the like. His response was straightforward: "no problem, I could get us out of fossil fuels next week, and if the investment committee tells me to do it, I will, doesn't matter to me."

I'm not sure if that perspective would be universal among endowments managers, but it may put that aspect of the conversation to bed.

Although I'm not sure that's good news for the divestment movement.  The more I look at this, the more convinced I become that the best thing for the goals of the campaign would be if most endowments continue to refuse to divest.

As this post by Carol Pierson points out, negative SRI screens have had little impact on curbing things like guns and tobacco over their long history. As I pointed out in this previous post, it's unlikely that if all endowments sold their fossil fuel stocks, the markets or fossil fuel companies would notice.

What fossil fuel companies, the markets, and the general public will likely notice is millions of students raising hell. And if endowments continue to stand their ground, that could happen. The campaign has now spread to 192 campuses.

The divestment movement also got a boost from skeptics with a WSJ opinion piece by Robert Bryce (subscription required). Divestment proponents were quick to point out Bryce's financial ties to the fossil fuel industry and provide rebuttals to his argument.

Fox News also acknowledged the campaign (and tried to dismiss it as childish).

The campaign is also getting wisely leveraging the arts to get people involved -- too often sustainability efforts focus on science, dire warnings, and restricting behavior.  I'm convinced the only way to really engage people in leading the kinds of changes needed to create a sustainable society is through the arts. Here's one example with the official divestment music video:

Stay going.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ARTSTRIKE: Don't know how we'll make it

Today is ARTSTRIKE -- an effort spearheaded by Rebuild the Dream which describes it this way:

We're using culture as a tool to change people's hearts and minds, in a way that only art can.

Artstrike aims to "expose" the fiscal cliff, as a "fiscal bluff" and using it to highlight the growing, and dangerous levels of inequality in America today.

Systematically increasing levels of inequality undermine the strength of our social fabric, and undermine people's capacity to meet their needs. That's unsustainable, and is bad for all of us, rich or poor.

Art and culture are great ways -- maybe the only ways -- to bring about the kinds of transformational cultural shifts needed to lead a peaceful and relatively smooth shift to sustainability.

Here's a video of one of today's art works that I thought was particularly powerful:

Stay going.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Divestment 2: Does the Math Add Up?

As I noted in my first divestment post, the “climate math” behind the divestment movement stems from the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report “Unburnable Carbon” (pdf).

The report contends that our “carbon budget” between now and 2050 – if we want to avoid a rise in average global temperatures of more than 2 degrees C (which would bring tremendous damage and human suffering to our global human society) – is 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide.  The total known reserves of coal, oil, and gas represent a carbon potential (if burned) of 2,795 gigatons, which means that about 80% of the known reserves are “unburnable” if we are to avoid a really nasty climate for us, our children, and grandchildren.

The report points out that fossil fuel companies account for reserves as assets, and analysts and investors determine the value of those companies based on these assets. If 80% of these assets are unburnable (and therefore worthless) these valuations are way off.  Further, because these companies represent such a large portion of economy and the financial markets, this valuation error represents a major systemic risk for the global financial systems.

One of the co-founders of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, recently published an article, “Why the ‘Do the Math’ Tour Doesn’t Add Up” on GreenBiz questioning the value and effectiveness of divestment as a response to this dilemma.

In the article Cary Krosinsky points out that “there is a severe systemic problem,” and that instead of pointing figures we should be rolling up our sleeves and figure out “what we should really be doing.” I always tend to prefer good faith, solutions-based approaches, and couldn’t agree more that this is a systemic problem, and that one divestment campaign is going to solve it.

But I think the intent behind the divestment movement is to highlight that good faith efforts haven’t (yet) been effective enough, fast enough.  And it is one piece in a larger effort – apartheid didn’t end only because of divestment, it was one part of a much longer, sustained effort that included a lot of hardship and sacrifice by countless advocates, undertaking many strategies.

Krosinsky also questions why oil services companies aren’t being targeted for divestment, but the Fossil Free campaign is pretty clear on this, stating: “There are many more companies that contribute indirectly to climate change–the multinationals that build drilling equipment, lay oil pipelines, transport coal, and utilities that buy and trade electricity. But right now, we need to be laser-focused on keeping all that coal, gas and oil in the ground, and these 200 companies are the ones that own the vast majority of those reserves.”

I think the more relevant question around if the divestment math adds up, relates to the impact divestment will actually have on the financials and activities of fossil fuel companies. Everyone I’ve talked to in the financial sector seems to agree that the impact on stock prices won’t likely be that significant.

The VP for Investments at Bowdoin supported this view, summarizing in this recent article what was my initial reaction to the divestment movement: “Markets are efficient and it is unclear if one group of investors decides to boycott a specific sector that there is any meaningful result… Other investors will step in and buy cheaper securities.”

There’s an estimated $400 billion in college endowments in the US. At Middlebury, 3.6% of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels. I have no idea if this is indicative of other endowments, but let’s assume for a minute it is, and be generous in assuming 5% of total endowment dollars are invested in fossil fuels – about $20 billion dollars. Exxon Mobil alone has a market cap of $404 billion. On average, more than 13 million shares are traded every day – that’s over $1 billion worth of shares per day at current stock price, for just one of the 200 companies targeted.

It seems like if all the endowments in the country sold all fossil fuel stocks, there’s a good chance that the markets and companies would barely notice, much less leave 80% of their reserves in the ground as a result.

But again, it seems to me that the divestment movement is realistic about this, and recognizes that its power is in highlighting the fact that climate change is a moral issue.

Harvard students summed up this idea well in this recent Crimson article: “Divestment may not pose an immediate threat to the annual turnover of the biggest companies, yet it does help to undermine the social and political capital of a powerful industry. More than anything, divestment is a moral statement.”

Do you think this will help the general public recognize that climate change driven by extracting and burning fossil fuels is an urgent, moral human rights issue?

Stay going.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Divestment 1: Intro to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

Over the past year or so, various efforts from coalitions of NGOs and student groups have emerged calling on college and university endowments (and other institutional investors) to divest from fossil fuel companies.

I’m planning on writing a series of short posts on these efforts and the many interesting questions, challenges, and conversations they raise.

This first post is just an overview (the NYT also just ran this article summarizing this emerging movement):

There are two major related, but distinct efforts:
·      Coal Divestment: launched in 2011, supported by a coalition of 11 groups.1
o   Calls on college endowments to divest from coal with a focus on 15 specific companies.
o   Active campaigns on approximately 20-25 campuses. 
o   See the Coal Divestment Toolkit (pdf) for details.
·      Fossil Fuel Divestment: launched in 2012, supported by a coalition of 7 groups.2
o   Calls for college endowments (and others) to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years.”
o   Focus on the top 200 coal and oil and gas companies, as measured by their reserves
o   Based on the premise that to avoid an increase of global average temperatures of more than 2°C, humanity cannot release more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide before 2050, which is about 20% of the carbon potential in known fossil fuel reserves (2,795 gigatons) — rendering 80% of known reserves “unburnable”
o   Currently, these reserves are treated as assets for the entities that control them.  If 80% are unburnable, the valuations of fossil fuel companies are currently misrepresented. This poses potential risks to individual investors, as well as systemic risk to the financial markets as a whole.
o   These numbers are stem from this report (pdf) from the Carbon Tracker Initiative (and are also the basis of Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article last summer and’s just-completed “Do the Math” tour)
o   For more details see’s Fossil Free website:

Key considerations:
·      There is an estimated $400 billion under management at college and university endowments.
·      The net impact of divestment on stock prices and companies’ capitalization is unclear; only a portion of investments are in public markets, and only a portion of those are in fossil fuel companies.
·      These efforts recognize that highly profitable fossil fuel companies are not likely to stop extracting fossil fuels as a result of this effort, but contend that drawing attention to this issue will highlight the moral implications as well as financial, social and environmental risks of fossil fuel investment. 
·      There is evidence that proposed alternatives (such as socially responsible investment funds, fossil fuel free funds, and on campus revolving loan funds to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects) can generate competitive returns.

So far two small colleges have gotten on board the divestment train: Unity College in ME and Hampshire College in MA. The students at Harvard passed a referendum with 72% in support of divestment.

So, there you have the basics of the fossil fuel divestment movements that are sweeping the nation. Subsequent posts will look at questions like: 

  • What impact will divestment have? Will it affect the financial health of fossil fuel companies? Will it influence their investments in extraction vs. alternative energy sources? 
  • Is the real leverage of divestment in the financial impact, or the awareness impact of shining the spotlight on the risks of fossil fuel dependence? (Does that matter?) 
  • What impact might these efforts have on the policies of the investment funds that serve endowments? What about on the energy analysts at the big banks? 
  • How does natural gas as a potential transition fuel factor into all of this? 
  • What’s the end game of divestment? 
  • What could fossil fuel companies do to deter divestment? Shut their doors? Shift a certain percentage of R&D from exploration into renewables? 
  • What impacts might divestment have on endowment performance? What are the alternatives and how does their performance compare? 
  • What should Trustees be considering in light of these demands? 
  • And more… 

I’m intending this series to be a true exploration of very complex issues, probably with more questions than answers, and likely with my own opinions and thoughts shifting and evolving through the process.

I hope it will spark some generative dialogue, and I hope you will share your thoughts, opinions, resources, and questions liberally.  And, please let me know if I’ve gotten any of the facts wrong about these efforts, and I will make the necessary corrections.

Stay tuned… and Stay going.