When Holly Zadra suggested that Pittsfield’s First Universalist Church divest its holdings in fossil-fuel corporations, she recalls that church councilors responded with awkward silence “as if I’d said something impolite.” People naturally resist discussing their complicity in an energy system that is destabilizing the planet.

Even Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College – the nation’s first higher education institution to remove fossil fuel holdings from its endowment, acknowledged his initial denial. When a board member raised the prospect of divestment, he admitted in a recent Portland Press Herald interview, “I pulled out of my pocket every rationalization … to avoid that.”

Within the “inconvenient truth” of global warming is an even starker financial equation that came to light several years ago. Activist Bill McKibben revealed in a widely read article that fossil-fuel companies have five times as many reserves on their books as can safely be burned.

According to the International Energy Association (IEA), 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves – with an estimated worth in 2012 of $20 trillion – must remain in the ground to avoid cooking the Earth (which scientists predict will happen if global temperatures increase by more than 3.6 degrees F). Yet if those assets stay in the ground, they will be devalued. “That carbon bubble,” McKibben wrote, “makes the housing bubble look small by comparison.”

Following that revelation, many organizational leaders felt it was prudent financially and imperative morally to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry – a “rogue sector,” Naomi Klein writes, whose fundamental “business plan is at odds with life on Earth.”

‘THE CAUSE OF OUR TIME’

“Slowing climate change feels like the cause of our time,” observes Lissa Widoff, executive director of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation, the first foundation in Maine to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. “This was something we could do to mobilize resources in a positive direction.”

Divestment is no panacea, she acknowledges, but it can effectively “put pressure on the investment community to do more research and ask hard questions.” Divestment campaigns can stigmatize companies previously considered legitimate. The aim is “not to bankrupt fossil fuel companies financially,” Damian Carrington writes in The Guardian, “but to bankrupt them morally.”

In past divestment campaigns against tobacco and apartheid, moral outrage ultimately took shape in more restrictive legislation. Fossil fuel divestment could build a groundswell of support for a carbon tax.

Supported by international networks like 350.org, fossil fuel divestment is gaining momentum around the globe – and in Maine. Complex choices are involved in the process, but “it’s not that hard,” Holly Zadra insists. “It’s not as hard as getting to work without fossil fuels.”

To eliminate fossil fuel holdings in an institution’s investment portfolio takes time (typically two or more years), leadership and careful analysis of current assets. It may also require a change in financial advisers, as not all firms are open to limiting investment options.

One challenge comes with the energy-sector holdings of diversified mutual funds and index funds. The S&P 500’s sector allocation for oil and gas is 7.88 percent, notes Eric Waters, chief financial officer at the Island Institute in Rockland. So while the institute has been ratcheting down its fossil fuel holdings, some remain through participation in diversified funds.

As the campaign expands, evidence increases to debunk the myth that divesting of fossil fuel stocks diminishes returns. Unity’s Mulkey recently noted, “There’s no financial penalty to divesting.… We have beaten our own index and all the other market indices, sometimes by a wide margin.”

“Divestment from fossil fuels,” Widoff adds, “reduces your options but not necessarily your returns. No one can predict where the market is going anyway.” The recent drop in oil prices, Waters says, made the Island Institute’s commitment to invest “in a way consistent with our mission” well-timed indeed: “We looked like geniuses!”

CONSCIOUS UNCOUPLING

Investors are starting to see a vast shift under way in the energy sector. Global investments in renewable energy totaled $270 billion in 2014, up 17 percent from the previous year. For the first time in 40 years, the IEA reports, the global economy grew while carbon dioxide emissions remained level. This decoupling of economic health and fossil fuel combustion bodes well for the planet, and the portfolios rid of fossil fuels.

Many organizations are joining a new Divest-Invest initiative, pledging to divest their fossil fuel assets and redirect those funds to a clean energy future. Switzer Foundation, a signatory to this initiative, is in the midst of what Widoff calls a “huge learning curve” as board members decide how to channel funds to foster more localized and ecologically sound enterprises.

While sympathetic to the paralyzing fears institutional administrators have about losing funds, Widoff believes it’s important to move beyond that – learning to manage risk and be transparent.

Two years after Zadra’s initial question about divestment, the First Universalist Church of Pittsfield has a portfolio free of fossil fuels and an investment policy that reflects its members’ core values.

“This process got us thinking about what we stood for,” Zadra says, “and asking – in the broadest sense, what are we investing ourselves in?”

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).


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