After a 21-city tour educating people on a new fossil fuel divestment campaign, climate activists are starting to see results.
In the last month, groups on 192 university and college campuses have organized campaigns to pull their schools’ endowments out of the fossil fuel industry. One small school, Unity College, has already committed to divesting from coal, oil, and gas. At Harvard, a school with the country’s largest endowment, 72 percent of students voted in favor of divesting from fossil fuels. Although Harvard officials balked, a group of student activists has kept the pressure on.
There’s another big piece of news on the divestment front this week. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is now calling on his city to strip fossil fuels from its two main pension funds. According to the city’s finance director, Seattle has $17.6 million invested in Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as smaller investments in other oil and gas companies. Mayor McGinn sent a letter to the city’s pension fund managers on Friday calling for them to move their money elsewhere:
To the members of the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System Board:
I write to you today to ask that you refrain from future investments in fossil fuel companies and begin the process of divesting our pension portfolio from those companies. I recognize that this process will require a thorough evaluation of the portfolio’s performance, assets, and investment strategies. City staff stand ready to assist you in this work.
Climate change is one of the most important challenges we currently face as a city and as a society. We have watched in recent weeks as weather influenced by climate change has caused significant damage and financial losses to cities and states on the East Coast. The projections suggest that the problem could get much worse. According to Bill McKibben and 350.org, fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in their reserves, five times the amount considered safe to avoid catastrophic climate change.
I believe that Seattle ought to discourage these companies from extracting that fossil fuel, and divesting the pension fund from these companies is one way we can do that. The City’s cash pool is not currently invested in fossil fuel companies, and I already directed that we refrain from doing so in the future. In addition, I am asking the Deferred Compensation Plan Committee to develop options for City employees to allow them to move their investments out of fossil fuel companies if desired, and to offer fossil fuel free investment choices to them refrain from future investments in fossil fuel.
The City of Seattle’s finance director informs me that two of the system’s top 10 investments are with ExxonMobil and Chevron. The pension system has currently $17.6 million invested with these two firms, which represents roughly 0.9% of the system’s $1.9 billion in assets. I understand that it is likely the system has investments in other fossil fuel-related entities as well.
There is a clear economic argument for divestment. While fossil fuel companies do generate a return on our investment, Seattle will suffer greater economic and financial losses from the impact of unchecked climate change. Our infrastructure, our businesses, and our communities would face greater risk of damages and losses due to turbulent weather that climate change causes. As a waterfront city, several of our neighborhoods and industrial districts are at risk if climate change causes a significant rise in sea level.
I believe that Seattle’s pension funds should be invested in companies that can provide a good return on our investment without putting our city and our future at risk. I am ready to work with the City Council and the pension board to make this happen.
Mayor of Seattle
This is the first time a city official has called for pulling money out of fossil fuels since the divestment campaign began. The strategy, organized by 350.org and promoted by a slew of other environmental groups, is modeled after a campaign in the 1980’s that pressured South Africa into abandoning apartheid. While the South Africa campaign was effective in forcing an end to the country’s racial segregation policies, the fossil fuel campaign is meant as more of symbolic gesture to “strip the social license” of fossil fuel companies exacerbating climate change.