Do the Right Thing: Institutions Can Responsibly Divest from Fossil Fuels

The world is on track to dump 2.5 trillion tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere by mid-century. Does that sound like an innocuous number? It’s not. It’s terrifying. It’s nearly 3 times what our planet can absorb without disastrous impacts. That level of pollution, scientists agree, will push average global temperatures up by almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit—the tipping point beyond which the most calamitous impacts of climate change start to become unavoidable for most people on Earth. The track we’re on, the track of little to no concerted global action on climate, is literally a dead end.

That’s why 400,000 people, myself included, took to the streets of New York City at the People's Climate March yesterday to demand that world leaders take bold action on climate change—to limit carbon pollution, to shift to clean energy, and to create a more secure future for the planet. Our rallying cry: It takes everyone to change everything. Not just people, but businesses, governments and institutions, too. Today, large institutions have a new opportunity to step up and answer the demands of the people they represent. A new fossil-fuel-free index strategy gives universities, foundations, pension funds and other large institutions a way to begin divesting from fossil fuels and hastening a shift toward a cleaner, more secure future.

Increasingly, many institutions are seeking to align their operations with their mission and values. But with our complicated financial system, and an equally complicated energy system, that’s not a straightforward task. So NRDC set out to find a solution. We consulted with BlackRock and the FTSE Group as they designed and launched a groundbreaking stock market index that seeks to exclude companies that produce oil, coal and natural gas. NRDC is now invested in this fossil-fuel-free strategy, which we believe is the first of its kind.

Divestment is an immediate step institutions can take to disassociate from an industry that has repeatedly misled the public, denied science and undermined the development of alternative energy sources. Like similar efforts aimed at South African apartheid and tobacco companies, institutional movement to divest from fossil fuels can jump-start a broader engagement that sparks dialogue, influences corporate behavior, and ultimately brings about the political change needed to break through barriers and usher in a new future.

The barriers are significant. Coal, gas and oil companies worldwide today benefit from huge government subsidies, cheap land leases, and, most significantly, from the freedom to pollute at will, with no obligation to pay for the economic, environmental, and health costs incurred as a result of that pollution. This exclusive treatment severely distorts the market, preventing clean, sustainable energies from gaining the traction they deserve.

To be clear, divestment alone will not turn the tide. But rejecting fiscal ties with the fossil fuel industry is a clear moral choice. Even the 1.5 degree rise in average temperature already caused by burning fossil fuels has created a warmer, wetter world marked by devastating storms, drought, ocean acidification, fires, flooding and increased risk to human health. And the people who suffer most from these impacts are often the ones who have contributed least to the pollution that is driving the destruction. 

Divesting from fossil fuels is the right thing to do. Divestment sends a strong message about the kind of world we want to leave for the next generation-- a world that no longer relies on dirty energy that threatens our future, damages our communities and destabilizes our climate. For NRDC, a fossil fuel-free future is where we see opportunity and promise, and that’s where we want to direct our financial resources.

Divestment is one of the many strategies we’ve devised over the past 40 years to chart our collective course toward a better, safer, healthier future. We encourage other institutions—universities, pension funds, foundations and other major organizations—to join us in the movement to divest from fossil fuels. More people need to say “enough” to having our energy policies set by politicians beholden to powerful fossil fuel companies. It’s time we all brought our budgets in line with the global carbon budget, and invested in a fossil-fuel-free future.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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