Fossil Fuels: A Mixed Blessing
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that roughly 85 percent of all energy consumed is produced by the burning of the three main fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Modern life would be impossible without these resources, but they come with a high price. The burning of fossil fuels generates at least 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide worldwide. At least half of that produces greenhouse gases and thus contributes to global warming and climate change.
There is a popular movement afoot in numerous colleges and cities demanding that public interest institutions divest their holdings from fossil fuel producers. Columnist Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) recently quoted the mission statement of the Fossil Free movement: "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. We believe that educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good should divest from fossil fuels."
Klein observed that "People are fed up with being told that the best way to fight climate change is to change their light bulbs and buy carbon offsets, while leaving the big polluters undisturbed. And they are raring to take the fight directly to the industry most responsible for the climate crisis." Klein reported that four colleges have already announced their intention to divest their endowments from fossil fuel securities, and ten cities made similar commitments.
Fossil fuel developers are doing everything in their power to make global warming inevitable. According to the British Carbon Tracker Initiative, the fossil fuel sector holds five times more carbon in its reserves than can be burned if the increase of warming is to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius.
As yet, the fossil fuel producers keep mining, drilling, and fracking with abandon. Klein even discovered that some environmental lobbies are "literally part owners of the industry causing the crisis they are purportedly trying to solve." The Nature Conservancy, the richest of all the "green" associations, owns $1.4 billion in publicly traded securities, and claims that it holds "the 100 largest endowments in the country." Similarly, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund possess endowments of $377 million and $195 million, respectively.
Many environmentalist groups, however, do not invest in the fossil-based industry. Among them are Greenpeace, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, Oil Change International, and the Climate Reality Project. The Natural Resources Defense Council claims that as it makes investment decisions, it specifically screens out "extractive industries, fossil fuels, and other areas of the energy sector." The Sierra Club also has a clear policy against investing in fossil fuel companies. Yet, the affiliated Sierra Club Foundation, with its over $60 million portfolio is still in the process of drafting an environment-friendly divestment policy, according to the Sierra Club's executive director.
By the end of 2012, the very wealthy Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had almost a billion dollars invested in just two oil giants: ExxonMobil and British Petroleum. Simultaneously, however, Gates is also supporting malaria research. One wonders if he knows that malaria-causing mosquitoes and parasites tend to thrive in warmer weather, possibly caused by climate change.Convincing the biggest foundations to divest will be slow. For a long time, forming partnerships with polluters was how the green groups proved they were serious. Now Naomi Klein has a clear message to corporate America: "Cut your ties with the fossils, or become one yourself."