Divest from Fossil Fuels

Print More

Through the years we’ve published many articles in Tikkun from Bill McKibben, perhaps the most respected activist-environmentalist. McKibben founded 350.org to highlight the dangers we face now that we are far past the largest amount of carbon that can be sustained by the planet (350 ppm).The abbreviation”ppm” stands for “parts per million,” which is simply a way of measuring the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all other molecules in the atmosphere. Many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments agree with Dr. Hansen that 350 ppm is the highest “safe” level of carbon dioxide. We join McKibben in recognizing the current environmental crisis as an emergency.
Scroll down to read McKibben’s suggestion of one action that Tikkun readers, NSP members, and our allies can take in the face of this emergency: a massive demonstration challenging global warming.
Below McKibben’s note, I have also included my own response to his suggestions, along with an explanation of the NSP’s longer-term strategy on climate change. Please share this whole exchange on your website, on your Facebook page, and through other social media, and send it to everyone you know!
– Rabbi Michael Lerner

Divest from Fossil Fuels
A Note from Bill McKibben to Tikkun readers, members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and our friends and allies.
Tikkun readers don’t need my financial advice – I’m not exactly a stock market guru. Still, I did write the first book for a general audience on climate change (way back in 1989), and I did found the first big grassroots climate campaign (350.org), so perhaps I can make a few observations about why the fossil fuel divestment effort has become the fastest-growing effort of its kind in history, according to Oxford University. And about why we need your congregations, your colleges, and your cities to join in this effort.
1) The fossil fuel companies aren’t normal companies. In the last few years we’ve come to understand that they have five times as much carbon in their reserves as we can safely burn if the world is to meet its agreed climate target of limiting rises in temperature to below 2 degrees. That is to say, if they carry out their business plan, the planet tanks. There’s no longer any real dispute about this – everyone right up to the World Bank has confirmed the math.
2) What this means in turn is that if you hold these stocks you in effect are wagering that the planet will do nothing to limit climate change. If we tried as a world to meet that two-degree limit – if we followed the principles put forth by all our leading religious and scientific bodies on this issue – the value of these stocks would plummet. HSBC, the world’s second-biggest bank, found that the values of these stocks would be cut in half by effective climate action.
3) Usually, dealing with companies doing something wrong, we can apply lesser kinds of pressure: proxy voting, say, on shareholder resolutions. But in this case there’s not a flaw in the business plan that can be corrected – the flawisthe business plan. Responding to such pressure earlier this year, Exxon – richest company on earth – said it would make no adjustments and thought it was ‘highly unlikely’ that they’d be restrained from using their fuel. That is, they said they’d burn the planet, and they didn’t think anyone could stop them
4) These companies and their investors also play a crucial role in sustaining the current system. If you invest in Exxon, you’ve helped send millions to climate-denial ‘think tanks.’ If you invest in Chevron, you helped send the largest corporate campaign contribution in history, designed to make sure that climate deniers kept continued control of the Congress
5) These positions are immoral. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage. Don’t trust me – listen to Desmond Tutu, perhaps the most revered faith leader on the planet at the moment, who earlier this year sent out a clarion call for divestment, especially for those of us who take the Scriptures seriously. “It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden ‘to till and to keep it,'” he said. “To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.” If, like me, you’ve traveled to places already devastated by climate change, then you know what he means. The one big study on this subject predicts that fossil fuel will take 100 million lives by 2030.
6) Divestment is not a single easy solution to global warming. It will not bankrupt the fossil fuel companies. It will, however, begin the process of politically bankrupting them, and making it harder for them to bend Washington to their will. In May, Christiana Figueres pleaded with faith leaders in a speech in London to divest immediately. By divesting, she said, faith groups can provide a “moral compass” to the planet’s other leaders. “Leaders of faith groups, from Christians and Muslims to Hindus, Jews and Buddhists have a responsibility and an opportunity,” she said.
7) And they can fulfill that responsibility without undue financial risk. In fact, study after study has shown that if endowments had divested of fossil fuels a decade ago they would have made far better returns over the period. And investors of all stripes are now calculating the risk that comes with the ‘carbon bubble’ – all those reserves of coal, gas, and oil that can’t be burned if we’re to come to terms with climate change
8) That’s why Anglican dioceses across Australia and New Zealand have divested, and why the United Church of Christ has urged its member congregations to divest, and why an astonishing array of cities (Seattle, Providence and dozens more) and colleges (from tiny Unity College to mighty Stanford) have begun the process as well. Here is a chance for theTikkunreadership, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the community you represent, to show its solidarity with young people and with poor people and with the rest of Creation. I hope you take it.

Rabbi Lerner’s response:

We will certainly show solidarity and join with all those involved in the campaign to divest from fossil fuels. This is a kind of BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions) movement that is an urgent focus for our attention. We will send you more information.
Tikkun and our interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives (which is also welcoming to secular humanist and atheists) is co-sponsoring a huge national demonstration in the days before world leaders convene to discuss climate change and a global response at the United Nations September 20-21. We’ll be joining with hundreds of other environmental, religious/spiritual, social transformation, and social justice groups. Please plan to come! More details to follow.
All of these actions and campaigns are important, but they cannot succeed without a fundamental transformation of our economic and political system.
McKibben states clearly that corporations would not be prevented from continuing to sell their planet-destructive fuels even if the divestment campaign were successful. So, of course we have to support that campaign. BUT ALSO: We have to overturn the control by corporations and the super-rich of our political systems at the state and national levels. And we will have to undermine the consciousness that the capitalist marketplace popularizes (through its media and through its daily shaping the consciousness of ordinary people around the world), seeking to persuade us that real fulfillment comes from consuming goods and owning things, and that real progress depends on how much wealth we accumulate and how many new products and gadgets and refinements on computers and cyberspace we can develop.
That’s why the first part of the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ ESRA (Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment) bans not just corporate money from campaigns, it bans all money except for funds provided by the state and federal government in equal amounts to all major candidates.
The ESRA also requires major media to give free and equal time to all major candidates. Yet we know that even if this part of ESRA were to pass by itself, corporations still have a major power – they can disinvest and move if they can’t block local environmental legislation and legislation requiring fair and respectful treatment of their workers. And caught in our system that has dramatically reduced its own safety belt measures to help those economically disadvantaged, many Americans who would love to care for the environment will fall for this trap and vote for people who are telling them that they will be without a job, without income, and eventually without a home, unless they vote for candidates who are “pro-business.”
That’s why the ESRA’s second part puts some major restrictions on corporations. It requires every major corporation (incomes above $50 million per year) to get a new corporate charter every five years and only if they can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a panel of ordinary citizens who can hear testimony from environmentalists and from people globally who have been impacted by the operations of that corporation. This forces them to be environmentally and socially responsible. The ESRA also forces corporations to pay damages to the communities they are leaving should they move, and requires any corporation doing business in the United States (no matter where they are located) to similarly prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a panel of ordinary citizens.
Finally, the ESRA mandates environmental education at every grade level from kindergarten through college, as well as in graduate and professional schools. This education program would teach empathy, compassion, and communication skills, challenging the notion that the good life is one filled with endless consumption. It would also challenge the idea that progress requires constantly new consumer products, and it would cultivate a recognition that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet as well as the well-being of Earth.
The ESRA would also overturn all international treaties and trade arrangements that contradict or restrain the imposition of this kind of control over the terms of trade and finance (Please read the ESRA attikkun.org/ESRA.)
When coupled with our proposed (domestic and international) Global Marshall Plan (tikkun.org/GMP), the ESRA presents a coherent long-term strategy for reversing the damage currently being done to the life-support systems of the planet. We need the Global Marshall Plan because people around the world will subordinate themselves to the logic of the capitalist marketplace if that remains the only way they can protect themselves from starvation or economic deprivation.
The ESRA is a long-term strategy. It will take years, perhaps decades, to win. It is not counter-posed to any of the short-range actions to limit environmental damage. But unless those struggles simultaneously push the ESRA and the vision it holds of ordinary people taking control of our politics and our economy, we will still be fighting these rearguard battles fifty years from now while the planet’s life support systems will be largely destroyed.
That’s one important reason why we are asking you to join the Network of Spiritual Progressives. The NSP is not just for spiritual or religious people – it’s for everyone who wants a world based on love, generosity, caring for each other, and caring for the earth.
You can support this long-term campaign by getting its ideas known and endorsed by professional organizations, unions, civic and religious organizations, universities and political parties, city councils, state legislatures, and ultimately by the U.S. Congress.
Utopian? NO – what’s utopian is thinking that the planet’s life support system can survive without this and other transformative measures. If we don’t achieve these kind of democratic transformations, we may find ourselves facing much harsher transformations as the environmental crisis deepens: we may be stunned as the 1 percent protects itself at the expense of the rest of us! So please join our Network of Spiritual Progressives now – at spiritualprogressives.org.