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Time for fossil fuel divestment campaign

The following article appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of NewsNotes.

Universities, religious institutions, governments and other investors are withdrawing their investments from the fossil fuel sector – corporations that extract oil, coal, gas and other fossil fuels. They are inspired by the "terrifying math" of climate change that shows how these corporations’ very business model is detrimental to the future of humanity. It is essential that this growing campaign succeed if humanity is going to be able to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Bill McKibben, who founded, wrote a watershed article in the July 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone titled, "Global warming’s terrifying new math." In it, he focuses on three numbers that everyone should know about and take to heart: Two, 565 and 2,795.

  • There is a growing international consensus to maintain the increase in global temperature to a maximum of two degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Many have argued for lower limits due to the fact that a temperature increase of only 0.8 degrees Celsius already has led to more storms, floods, Arctic melting and other negative effects. DARA, an independent organization that conducts research and evaluates humanitarian policy and practice, estimates that, currently, 400,000 people die each year from the effects of climate change. Yet world leaders were only able to agree on the two-degree limit.
  • 565 gigatons is the maximum amount of additional carbon dioxide that can be released into the air by the year 2050 and have a reasonable hope (an 80 percent chance) of remaining below the two-degree limit. "At current rates—we’re burning more than 30 gigatons annually and increasing three percent a year—it will take us 14 years to seal our fate," writes McKibben.
  • Finally, 2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that fossil fuel companies report already having in reserves, ready to be extracted and burned. Note that this number is almost five times larger than the 565-gigaton limit. This means that if we as a global community are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, fossil fuel companies must keep 80 percent of their reserves in the ground.

Think about these numbers for a while. Even if corporations stopped searching for new sources of fossil fuels today, they already have discovered far more than we can use if we want our children and grandchildren to have a chance at a decent life. If they simply burnt what they already have in reserves, the global temperature would far surpass the two-degree limit with truly catastrophic results for all life on the planet. As McKibben says, "You can have a healthy fossil fuel industry or a healthy planet, but you can’t have both."

It is true that we all benefit from fossil fuels: running our cars, heating our homes, bringing food to the table, etc., but most people would be happy using sun and wind power, and it is principally the fossil fuel industries that work to delay the use of more alternative energy. The industry as a whole spends $440,000 a day lobbying Congress to maintain their power and inhibit cleaner alternatives. While some companies have nominal investments in alternative energies (investments that they repeatedly tout in commercials and billboards), they spend much more to find new sources of fossil fuels. ExxonMobil spends $100 million each day in its desperate search for more reserves even though it, alone, already has reserves equal to seven percent of the total carbon necessary to pass two degrees.

Clearly we need to shift money from the fossil fuel sector to better alternatives. Chuck Collins with the Institute for Policy Studies has written, "Divestment is not primarily simply an economic strategy, but also a moral and political one. If slavery is wrong, is it wrong to make a profit from it? If apartheid is wrong, is it wrong to make a profit from it? If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from it."

As is often true of social struggles, universities and faith-based organizations are at the forefront of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Students at hundreds of universities have begun campaigns to pressure their trustees to divest from fossil fuel corporations with some early successes at Hampshire and Unity colleges.

The United Church of Christ (UCC) was the first national church to officially decide to withdraw all of their investments in fossil fuel companies. Arguing in favor of divestment, Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts conference of the UCC, said, "We can’t continue to profit from wrecking God’s creation—not through our pensions, not through our endowments, not by our personal investments. As Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.’"

Faith in action:

To learn more about the efforts to divest from the 200 publicly-traded companies that hold the vast majority of the world’s proven coal, oil and gas reserves, go to for more information.