Massive Selloff

by Bill McKibben

Well, sort of. News overnight that Australia’s prestigious Sydney University has announced its endowment will stop making any new investments in coal, and start reviewing its existing holdings. It comes after an intensive campaign from Greenpeace Australia, and my friends at 350.org, and is only one of many victories for the divestment campaign in recent weeks: the Unitarian Universalist Association, the World Council of Churches, Pitzer College, and the University of Dayton (a big Catholic research university in that green stronghold of Ohio) have joined Anglican dioceses, Stanford University, the United Church of Christ, and a great many others in what an Oxford paper described as the fastest growing movement of its kind ever.

The divestment camp has made two basic arguments. One, we’ve said, it’s simply wrong to invest in companies whose business plans involve finding, digging up, and burning far more carbon than the world’s scientists say is safe: if that’s your plan, than you’re not a normal company, you’re a rogue. You may not be breaking the laws of the state, but you are committed to violating the laws of physics.

Two, even if you don’t care about the future of the, you know, earth, it’s also an unwise gamble to keep doubling down on fossil fuel, because your investment only makes sense if the world takes no action to rein in carbon emissions. If the planet’s leaders ever get their act together, then many of the reserves that undergird company valuations will be “stranded,” much like the condo developments abandoned in the Nevada desert during the last housing crash. That argument has been more persuasive than I would have guessed when we launched this drive.

Not everyone is convinced, of course:

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said it was “a shame that Sydney University has caved in to the bullying of environmental activists masquerading as financial advisers”.

“The divestment campaign is environmental activism dressed up as investment advice and anyone choosing to take investment advice from environmental activists do so at their own financial risk,” Mr Galilee said, adding a recent report commissioned by the council had found the fossil fuel divestment case was based “on false premises and unsubstantiated claims, and may breach Australian law”.

But in fact, coal stocks have been a drug on the market. New York State’s pension fund alone has managed to lose $100 million over the last few years investing in black rocks. In this case, one might be better off taking investment advice–or advice period–from Desmond Tutu, who helped lead the last great divestment drive (from apartheid South Africa) and now is a key voice for fossil fuel divestment:

The taste of “success” in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.