Divest Duke Urges University to Phase Out Investment in Fossil Fuels
Laura Mistretta is a senior Environmental Science and Policy major at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.
As a student of environmental science I have made it a priority to understand the root causes of climate change in the hopes of contributing to a solution. My classes have highlighted numerous possible points of intervention: scientific research, policy, lifestyle changes and of course education. However, this past year I have been pursuing a solution based in economics and investment, two topics I knew very little about and rarely associated with solving climate change.
I am of course talking about fossil fuel divestment. Though I have known for a while now that burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, which cause climate change, much of the discussion on this topic in my classes focused on the need to research and develop renewable sources of energy rather than challenge the existing energy regime. However this year, I have had the opportunity to do just that as a part of Divest Duke.
Sixty-five percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are a product of burning fossil fuels in order to generate electricity, heat buildings, power vehicles, etc. We all use and depend on fossil fuels on a daily basis. However, the uncomfortable truth is that if we intend to limit the warming of the planet to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended 2°C, 60-80 percent of the current fossil fuel reserves held by the top fossil fuel companies must remain in the ground.
These sobering facts have helped launch fossil fuel divestment campaigns at more than 500 colleges and universities across the nation. Thus far the majority response from administrators and university presidents at the country’s most prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard, Cornell and Brown, has been “No."
The most oft cited reasons that university presidents have given in support of their decision not to divest are:
- If universities sell their shares in the top 200 fossil fuel companies they lose their ability to influence those companies through shareholder advocacy.
- It is hypocritical to divest from fossil fuels when we continue to rely on them in our daily lives.
- Divesting from fossil fuel companies could hurt the endowments’ returns.
In response to the first argument about shareholder advocacy, while it can be an effective way of creating change in regards to fossil fuel companies, their entire business model is based around finding, refining and burning more and more fossil fuels. In order to avoid climate disaster we need to see a major shift in how we produce energy. Shareholder advocacy might work for smaller changes such as fairer labor practices, but we need to send a message to fossil fuel companies that it is socially irresponsible for them to continue operating as they do at a very fundamental level.
Some people have argued that fossil fuel companies have made positive steps by investing in renewable energy projects. However, if you look at the numbers, the top fossil fuel companies have committed a very small portion of their budgets to developing renewable energy, and some have already started pulling out of renewable energy projects. But really the bottom line is, as long as fossil fuel companies continue to seek out new fossil fuel reserves, they are threatening the future of us all.
The second argument regarding the hypocrisy of divesting while we still depend on fossil fuels is quite flawed. Yes, it is unfortunate that we are so dependent on fossil fuels, but we need to start somewhere. Fossil fuel companies are not going to change out of the goodness of their hearts. They need to be shown that people are serious about demanding change.
In our highly market-based economy, money is a powerful force. Removing one’s money from a company is a great way to demonstrate you do not support that company’s practices in a language they will understand loud and clear. Plus, it frees up money to invest in renewable energy projects and research to help speed along the energy transition.
The third argument that divesting from fossil fuels could hurt the endowment is incredibly short sighted. Pressure is already mounting against the fossil fuel companies, particularly the coal industry. The percentage of electricity produced in the U.S. by burning coal is shrinking fast and coal assets are decreasing in price. As divestment campaigns continue to spread and gain traction, it is not unreasonable to think that the same fate awaits oil and gas, causing some financial analysts to warn of an impending “carbon bubble.”
Additionally, as the demand for environmentally responsible investment portfolios increase, it will become easier and easier for major institutions to divest. Furthermore divesting from fossil fuels has the potential to improve endowment returns as a number of divested portfolios have enjoyed increased returns as compared to a typical portfolio including fossil fuels.
Divest Duke is making great strides, having submitted our formal divestment proposal to the Advising Committee on Investment Responsibility. We eagerly await their comments and are committed to continue raising awareness and support on campus until Duke agrees to begin phasing out fossil fuels from their investment portfolio.
No one is saying that divesting from fossil fuels is going to be easy, but I can’t think of a better reason to try hard than to prevent massive climate disruption.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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