April 17, 2015
Forty-five years after the first Earth Day in 1970, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have stalled and the planet faces the potentially devastating effects of accelerating climate change. At the same time, calls for educational and philanthropic institutions to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies have gotten louder and a grassroots divestment movement has emerged from college campuses across the country.
PND asked noted environmental activist and author Bill McKibben about the impact of the fossil fuel divestment movement, the role of philanthropy in the fight against climate change, and the prospect that something meaningful will come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.
Philanthropy News Digest: The name of the organization you co-founded, 350.org, refers to the goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 400 parts per million to 350 ppm — a level, according to climatologist James Hansen and others, that is necessary to preserve conditions on Earth similar to those which prevailed as humans evolved and flourished. Where do things stand as of 2015? And do we have any chance of meeting the 350 ppm target?
Bill McKibben: Where we stand is the CO2 level in the atmosphere climbs 2 ppm annually — and the Arctic and the Antarctic are dealing with preposterous changes that even the most pessimistic scientists thought would take many decades to arrive, oceans are acidifying, and the cycle of floods and droughts is deepening. If we managed to get off fossil fuels with great haste — if we worked at the outer edge of the possible — then by 2100 forests and oceans would have sucked up enough carbon that we'd be moving back toward 350 ppm. Much damage would be done in the meantime, but perhaps not civilizational-scale damage. But that window is small, and closing.
PND: 350.org’s Fossil Free campaign aims to convince educational and religious institutions, governments, and other organizations that serve the public good to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel companies. One frequently heard criticism of the campaign is that it is trying to put out a fire with a garden hose. That is, getting a few dozen or hundred institutional investors to divest their portfolios of fossil fuels will have no measurable impact on the activities of large energy companies — or on other investors who may see an opportunity as those stocks are sold. What’s wrong with that argument?
BM: If it was all anyone was doing, it would not be enough, not even close. Of course, we're also fighting against new pipelines and coal mines, and for the rapid spread of renewable energy. But divestment is one of the things that knits it together — it's been the vehicle for spreading the news that these companies have four times the carbon in their reserves than any scientist thinks we can safely burn. That's why everyone, up to the president of the World Bank, has hailed divestment as a crucial part of the fight.