RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

McKibben writes: "It makes no sense to pay for one's pension by investing in companies that make sure we won't have a planet to retire on. Even the dead won't rest easy if their perpetual care is paid for at the cost of those they left behind."

Why invest in our death? (photo: Salman Muzaffar/AP)
Why invest in our death? (photo: Salman Muzaffar/AP)

It's Time to Stop Investing in the Fossil Fuel Industry

By Bill McKibben, Guardian UK

01 June 13


It makes no sense to pay for one's pension by investing in companies that make sure we won't have a planet to retire on.

arlier this month, the trustees of the city graveyard in Santa Monica, California (final resting place of actor Glenn Ford and tennis star May Sutton) announced they were selling their million dollars worth of stock in fossil fuel companies. As far as I know they were the first cemetery board to do so, but they join a gathering wave of universities, churches and synagogues, city governments and pension funds.

In the last few months, fossil fuel divestment has turned into one of the fastest-growing protest campaigns in recent American history - and it's already reached all the way to Australia, where portions of the Uniting Church have announced they'll sell their fossil fuel stock as well.

It's happening because it's one of the few ways for concerned people and institutions to take a stand on climate change, and confront the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry. But it's also happening because once you run the numbers, there's no way to escape the conclusion that this industry is now an outlaw industry. Not outlaw against the laws of the state - they generally have a large hand in writing those - but outlaw against the laws of physics.

Here's the maths: almost every country on earth, including Australia, has signed on to the idea that we shouldn't raise the planet's temperature more than two degrees - that was the only tangible outcome of the otherwise pointless Copenhagen conference on climate change in 2009. The one degree we've raised so far has already melted the Arctic, not to mention laid the ground for Australia's "angry summer". As such, two degrees is too high but it's the only red line the planet's governments have ever agreed to.

We know roughly how much more carbon we can emit before we go past two degrees: about 500 billion tons. And at current rates of emissions, that will take us less than 40 years. But the math gets really impossible when you consider how much carbon the world's coal, oil and gas industries already have in their reserves. That number is about 2,800 gigatons - five times what the most conservative governments and scientists on earth say would be safe to burn.

And yet, companies will dig it up and burn it - that's what their business plans call for, that's what their share prices depend on, and that's what their government lobbying budgets are spent on making sure happens. Once you know the maths, you know that Exxon, Rio Tinto and Shell and so on aren't like normal companies - they're really rogues. But you also know that our situation is hopeless unless we get to work: the end of this script is written, unless we rewrite it.

Doing so is hard. It requires changes in our personal lives and in our government policy, which Australia has begun to make: the carbon tax, if it survives the next election, is a serious step forward. It also requires that we rein in the plans of, say, those coal companies that want to mine places like the Galilee Valley: if the expansion plans of Australia's miners are carried out, that coal alone will use up almost a third of the atmospheric space between us and those two degrees.

There are a dozen other places like the Australian coalfields around the world, and we have to stop them all. The fossil fuel industry should be turned into an energy industry: we have to take the hundred million dollars a day that Exxon spends on finding new oil, and have them spend it on solar panels instead. Which is why, for now, we have to divest those stocks.

The idea is not that we can bankrupt these companies; they're the richest enterprises in history. But we can give them a black eye, and begin to undermine their political power. That's what happened a quarter century ago when, around the western world, institutions divested their holdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela credited that as a key part of his country's liberation, and Desmond Tutu last year called on all of us to repeat the exercise with the fossil fuel companies.

It will be even harder this time, since this is such a dug-in industry. But their ability to use all those reserves is limited because of climate change, HSBC bank predicted share values of fossil fuel companies would fall by half or more. An investment in a fossil fuel company is a wager that we'll never do anything about climate change, because if we ever even tried to meet that two degree target, those stock values would plummet.

It makes no sense to pay for one's pension by investing in companies that make sure we won't have a planet to retire on. Even the dead won't rest easy if their perpetual care is paid for at the cost of those they left behind- so ask your church, your super-annuation fund, and even your cemetery which side of this wager they're taking. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+14 # universlman 2013-06-01 17:54
Unfortunately we invest in the oil giants every time we drive up to a gas pump. We need to come up with an alternative to that behavior.
+3 # X Dane 2013-06-01 22:22
It is certainly going to be difficult moving from the fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy......And it will take some time, But if we wait and keep pushing it out. It will be much more difficult ......maybe even impossible.
+12 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-06-01 23:25
Elizabeth Warren for President 2016. Take back our government. Vote the leeches out, repeal Citizens United, boycott the corporations that are killing us, cut the military machine down to size. Wake up America.
-15 # brycenuc 2013-06-01 23:35
Bill Mckibben is leading the world down the path of disaster. Carbon dioxide cannot cause the horrors claimed for it. But premature cutting off of carbon fuels will destroy the worlds economy and cause real suffering and problems. The war on carbon is truly a fraud, and an extremely harmful fraud.
+11 # Helen 2013-06-02 00:29
Why couldn't the fossil fuel giants themselves invest some of their wealth in wind, solar or biofuels? That would be the responsible thing for them to too. For example, instead of fracking for natural gas in communities that don't want the risks that fracking entails, they could invest in wind turbines. Our National Renewable Energy Lab says there is enough windy land, way from cities and sensitive areas, to produce nine times the amount of power that the U.S. generated in 2011. If we had a carbon tax, maybe they'd think about expanding in clean directions. Please sign the petition at
+1 # dovelane1 2013-06-03 03:34
i believe the main reason they don't invest in renewable energies is that once the renewables are in place, their income decreases.

If we put solar panels on every placethat was viable, there would be less need for any of the other types of energy, leading to less income.

if the bottom line is amassing a fortune as quickly as possible, usually people and the environment will suffer in the long run.

One possible option might be to nationalize the power industry, and take the profit motive out of it. The people making the profits won't like that.

But as I mention in the following post, if there are no consequences to their decisions, there will be no motivation for them to change. We, the people, need to provide them with the motivation to change. Whatever it takes.
+8 # dovelane1 2013-06-02 03:59
Fossil fuels, with all of its dysfunctional problems, is still just a symptom of a different, more pervasive, and less examined problem.

Look at how aggressive all the corporate- clonglomerates, and the people who run them are. The probme is, this culture rewards aggressive behavior on one hand, and does not hold them responsible for the consequences of their decisions on the other hand.

When you have a company that is making money hand over fist by being aggressive, and not paying any money towards the consequences of their decisions, why should they change?

Look at Monsanto, and their connection to Agent Orange, PCB's, dioxin, Lasso, and now RoundUp. As long as any company can avoid paying money towards the consequences of their decisions, why should they change.

We preach being responsible to out kids, and then do things that support irresponsible behavior in our government, in our corporations, and our lives. What kind of role models are we presenting?

I'm not sure the typical visitor to the Reader Supported News site would fit that description. And the people who don't read articles at this site will never see themself in this response. Gotta start somewhere, somehow...
+4 # cwbystache 2013-06-02 06:21
All this can't be said too much, and apparently it HAS been said for a very long time with no cure effected ... attributed to Thoreau (I can't find any believable record it's his statement, though):

"What good is a house, if you haven't got a decent planet to put it on?"
+6 # angry 2013-06-02 07:40
Look, I simply don't know if Oil is bad for us or good for us. I am sure there are trade-offs. But I hire politicians to study the facts and make these tough decisions for the country. Now I find out that they are taking cash bribes from one side or the other to pass (or not pass) regulations governing same!!!

And THIS is our free market at work???
+4 # Regina 2013-06-02 13:05
Angry: Maybe you should switch ti hiring scientists. Politicians will always sell us out for their wealth.
+2 # angry 2013-06-02 13:49
Yes, I know Regina. But scientists can be bought too. They call it "consulting fees." But perhaps public funding of campaigns, at 1/10th the current costs, would be an answer.
+1 # Regina 2013-06-02 14:49
Hi again, angry -- those consultants become ex-scientists turned politicians. Real scientists can tell them apart. Unfortunately, Congress and much of the public can't tell them apart, and that failure shows up in the HR science committee (whose members are NOT scientists!) and the Fox listeners.
+1 # angry 2013-06-02 15:47
But while we can't control who the scientists get their paychecks from, we can control the politicians. And until we have public funding of campaigns the public is screwed.
+3 # RHytonen 2013-06-02 15:04
Quoting angry:
Now I find out that they are taking cash bribes from one side or the other to pass (or not pass) regulations governing same!!!

And THIS is our free market at work???

That's EXACTLY how a TOTALLY "Free Market" would work only thousands of times worse.

With an absolute dearth of the almost nonexistent regulation we have now, as the Libertarians want, they would collude to raise prices and reduce wages and quality indefinitely in a race to the bottom, until eventually buying each other out, and there would be ONE businessman who owned EVERYTHING.

And no one surviving to buy it from him or bet on either it or the prospect.
+8 # jwb110 2013-06-02 09:37
My question is why do coal, oil, and gas companies get Gov't subsidies? They sure don't need them and it would help bring down the deficit even if in a small way.
+5 # RHytonen 2013-06-02 11:05
Just ike anything else, universlman, how do we fund it?
I can't even afford to keep my ancient car running, and being retired(=unempl oyable+impoveri shed,)will never be able to replace it with ANYTHING.

The answer of course is, we have to STOP subsidizing the rich and inherently WILDLY profitable, and START requiring them to participate in funding the government that was DESIGNED (read Jefferson's letters)to be ENTIRELY funded by the rich (through a LUXURY import tax,) but with NO added nor special participation for them in writing its laws.
(For that, read Jefferson's letters on corporate power.)
+3 # RHytonen 2013-06-02 11:06
P.S. - We walk wherever possible. Most Americans need the exercise anyway.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.