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Fossil fuel divestment is moral, strategic

Money is an instrument of moral choice.
By Fred Small
Summer 2013 5.15.13

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gas company shares (Robert Neubecker)

(Robert Neubecker)

Climate change is a moral issue.

Global warming is theft from our children and from the most vulnerable of the earth’s peoples, most of them poor and of color. Global warming threatens every society on earth and the natural systems on which they depend, including countless other species. Humanity faces a daunting and dangerous future of drought, famine, flood, fire, disease, and extreme weather. Those most responsible for climate change are least at risk. But because we’re all connected, we’re all at risk.

In the moral struggle against global warming, divestment isn’t the only tactic. It may not be the best tactic. But it’s a crucial tactic, because right now nothing is working. [For another view, read Tim Brennan’s counterpoint: “Fossil fuel divestment is not the answer.”]

So far, we who apprehend the threat haven’t been smart enough, creative enough, disciplined enough, or bold enough to tilt the political balance. The governments of the world—most notably our own—remain in the death grip of powerful interests swollen with profits from fossil fuels. The American economy is as fatally entangled in fossil fuels today as it was in slavery in 1850.

The smart money is on the status quo. It always is. But the fossil fuel divestment campaign is telling the smart money to get smarter. It’s reminding treasurers and trustees that fiduciary responsibility means attending not just to short-term security, but also to long-term sustainability. It’s pointing out that there can be no economy without a livable planet. It’s calling upon investors to transition to a fossil-free portfolio within five years.

The campaign is asking the fossil fuel industry to stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, to stop lobbying to preserve their special breaks, and to leave 80 percent of their current reserves in the ground. Given the norms of corporate capitalism, these are audacious, even preposterous demands. Given the climate crisis, they are modest, reasonable, and necessary.

Divestment activists aren’t trying to bankrupt Big Oil and Big Coal financially. They’re trying to bankrupt them morally—to isolate them as outlaws, just as anti-smoking activists stigmatized Big Tobacco. As 350.org’s Jay Carmona explains, “Divestment is targeting the one thing that those companies can’t buy, which is their reputation.” The idea is to weaken the industry politically to the point where increasing the price of carbon becomes politically feasible.

Unitarian Universalists too often think of themselves as the smartest people in the room. We like to run things, and if we can’t, we second-guess those who do. But sometimes the best leadership is to get out of the way and let others lead.

With or without us, the divestment movement is catching fire—capturing the imaginations and igniting the passions of young people fed up with gridlock in Congress and business as usual in boardrooms as the earth burns. Washington, D.C., may be far away from these young people, but the boards of trustees at their own colleges are very near. Students at nearly three hundred colleges and universities have taken up the cause so far.

From college campuses, the divestment movement is spreading rapidly to local and state governments, foundations, museums, and—yes—religious institutions. How will UUs respond? Will we side with the kids in the streets or with the financiers in the boardrooms? In the Civil Rights movement, young activists led and the churches followed. Together they changed the course of history.

Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Winona LaDuke, Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Bob Massie, and Lennox Yearwood all support divestment. Even that wild-eyed radical Al Gore has endorsed it.

Not all environmentalists agree. Some will in good faith and conscience fight global warming through shareholder activism. I wish them every success.

Whatever we do, we must do it with love, in love, and for love. If the coming decades prove as grim as climate scientists predict, we are all in for a very rough ride. Not only must we stop global warming, not only must we adapt to a changing planet, we must also minister to one another with tenderness and compassion. When the hurricanes hit and the floodwaters rise, we’re not going to demand to know where someone stood on global warming before we offer them our hand.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that Bull Connor was not his enemy. His enemies were bigotry and hatred. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is not my enemy. My enemies are greed, selfishness, and short-sightedness.

Money is always an instrument of moral choice. We must each choose as wisely as we can. I choose divestment.


This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 59–60) alongside a companion article by Tim Brennan, “Fossil fuel divestment is not the answer.” See sidebar for links to related resources.

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