Flowers bloom across the street from an oil refinery smoke stack in Port Arthur, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The movement demanding that public interest institutions divest their holdings from fossil fuels is on a serious roll. At last count, there were active divestment campaigns on 305 campuses and in more than 100 US cities and states. The demand has spread to Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Britain. And though officially launched just six months ago, the movement can already claim some provisional victories: four US colleges have announced their intention to divest their endowments from fossil fuel stocks and bonds, and in late April ten US cities made similar commitments, including San Francisco (Seattle came on board months ago).
There are still all kinds of details to work out to toughen up these pledges, but the speed with which this idea has spread makes it clear that there was some serious pent-up demand. To quote the mission statement of the Fossil Free movement: “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. We believe that educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good should divest from fossil fuels.” I am proud to have been part of the group at 350.org that worked with students and other partners to develop the Fossil Free campaign. But I now realize that an important target is missing from the list: the environmental organizations themselves.
You can understand the oversight. Green groups raise mountains of cash every year on the promise that the funds will be spent on work that is attempting to prevent catastrophic global warming. Fossil fuel companies, on the other hand, are doing everything in their power to make the catastrophic inevitable. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative in Britain (on whose impeccable research the divestment movement is based), the fossil fuel sector holds five times more carbon in its reserves than can be burned while still leaving us a good shot of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. One would assume that green groups would want to make absolutely sure that the money they have raised in the name of saving the planet is not being invested in the companies whose business model requires cooking said planet, and which have been sabotaging all attempts at serious climate action for more than two decades.
But in some cases at least, that was a false assumption. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, since some of the most powerful and wealthiest environmental organizations have long behaved as if they had a stake in the oil and gas industry. They led the climate movement down various dead ends: carbon trading, carbon offsets, natural gas as a “bridge fuel”—what these policies all held in common is that they created the illusion of progress while allowing the fossil fuel companies to keep mining, drilling and fracking with abandon. We always knew that the groups pushing hardest for these false solutions took donations from, and formed corporate partnerships with, the big emitters. But this was explained away as an attempt at constructive engagement—using the power of the market to fix market failures.
Now it turns out that some green groups are literally part owners of the industry causing the crisis they are purportedly trying to solve. And the money the green groups have to play with is serious. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, has $1.4 billion in publicly traded securities, and boasts that its piggybank is “among the 100 largest endowments in the country.” The Wildlife Conservation Society has a $377 million endowment, while the endowment of the World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US) is worth $195 million.