The logic of fossil fuel divestment-reinvestment

Climate breakdown is a profound threat to humanity

To use the words of Investec Asset Management, ‘the climate challenge is an existential threat’ to humanity.  (It is also a massive potential opportunity – so read down to find out more about that.)

  • This New York Magazine article ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ outlines some of the worst possible likely effects of climate change (what could happen IF we don’t change course). The article was extremely controversial when published, not least amongst climate scientists themselves. However, on close scrutiny, it seems most of the controversy lay not in the facts themselves, but on whether this kind of article is an ‘effective’ way to communicate the dangers of climate change to the public. And it seems climate scientists themselves, who all too often work in narrow and rather specialised silos, were rather alarmed and scared by seeing the whole picture consolidated in a single article.
  • New York Times – ‘Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change’: Longer term, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees, precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in Earth’s history, and melt the polar ice caps, causing the seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities. All of this could take hundreds or even thousands of years to play out, conceivably providing a cushion of time for civilization to adjust, but experts cannot rule out abrupt changes, such as a collapse of agriculture, that would throw society into chaos much sooner. Bolder efforts to limit emissions would reduce these risks, or at least slow the effects, but it is already too late to eliminate the risks entirely.
  • Ten global impacts from climate change in 2016
  • Carbon Brief: ‘Analysis: Just four years left of the 1.5C carbon budget’: ‘Four years of current emissions would be enough to blow what’s left of the carbon budget for a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C.’

Government actions to curtail climate change remain inadequate.

If fossil fuel companies burn all their reserves of oil, gas and coal, we will far exceed ‘safe’ limits to global warming

  • Carbon Tracker analysis: “Only 20% of the total [global] reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable… Already in 2011, the world has used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget of 886GtCO2, leaving 565GtCO2. All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2. Fossil fuel reserves owned by the top 100 listed coal and top 100 listed oil and gas companies represent total emissions of 745GtCO2. Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable.

But fossil fuel companies continue to block change

Despite this, remarkable change is already sweeping through the global energy sector

While long-term value in the fossil fuel sector appears to be gravely threatened

The international fossil fuel divestment movement continues to grow

Comprehensive list of divestment commitments: Total value of institutions divesting now $5.45 trillion and 719 institutions globally, including Ireland (national strategic investment fund), the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; the cities of Berlin, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Paris, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, and Sydney.

The fossil fuel sector has a great many negative impacts besides climate change

So eliminating fossil fuels is also a massive opportunity to reduce other problems: war, resource conflicts and price instability, air pollution, corruption, noise, land degradation.

There is a Buddhist saying that, “Those who spend too long in a privy [toilet] soon forget the smell.” We’ve lived for so long now with the “stench” of fossil fuels that we’ve become too accustomed to their many costs. Yes, fossil fuels have helped secure an extraordinary level of human prosperity – but the liabilities column is stacking up fast and threatens to overwhelm the progress they’ve helped us realise. Fossil fuels have brought some prosperity – but also massive ecological degradation, wars, corruption, air pollution, death, noise, dangerous jobs, health problems and premature deaths. Happily, there are now many viable alternatives in the realms of energy, agriculture and resource use – which we can’t adopt too quickly.

Running the world on renewable energy will cost less than running it on fossil fuels


Beyond divestment: The ‘Green New Deal’

We’re living in very challenging times – fraught with danger, but also abundant with opportunity, and this political challenge has now been formalised in what US progressives are calling “the Green New Deal”: the idea that serious action to deal with the climate crisis is also an opportunity to rebuild economies from the ground up with more secure infrastructure, higher levels of employment (and better quality jobs), and much greater equality.

Some key links:

The Intercept: A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, outlining one vision of how the Green New Deal could unfold

A European New Deal: While Americans fight over what the Green New Deal could be, the Diem 25 pan-European progressive political movement has quietly put together an excellent outline.

Frequently asked questions about divestment

Do the Math – the movie that started it all: