BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company: putting the freeze on global warming.
ELLEN DORSEY: The climate crisis is so urgent that if you own fossil fuels, you own climate change.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Like we did under Kennedy to go to the moon, we need to spur the same innovation to create a sustainable economy that’s based on the energy of the future, not on the energy of the past.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. For growing numbers of people, the reality of global warming is so urgent they’ve given up waiting for governments to act, and they’ve decided it’s folly to expect the coal, oil, and gas companies ever to admit their products are burning up the earth. So these aroused citizens are going for the jugular – they’re directing their efforts directly at the one place held sacred by the industry -- the bottom line.
It’s called divestment. A campaign to persuade investors to take their money out of fossil fuel companies. Foundations, faith groups, pension funds, cities and universities are being urged to take the lead, to sell their shares in polluting industries and go “fossil free.”
On more than 300 college campuses, from Middlebury in Vermont to Berkeley in California, students are calling on their schools to divest. Sometimes they are rebuffed, as happened recently at Harvard, which at over $32 billion dollars has the largest university endowment in the country. Last fall, the school’s president said divestiture was neither, “warranted or wise.” But this month, nearly 100 faculty members sided with the students. They said, “Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry […] We now know that fossil fuels cause climate change of unprecedented destructive potential.”
Divestment has worked once before – and in a big way. Three decades ago, students, religious communities, and unions sustained a campaign against U.S. companies doing business with South Africa and helped put an end to apartheid. Only four months after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela came to California to say “thank you” to Americans who kept up the economic pressure.
With me now are two people who are leaders of this new divestment movement. Ellen Dorsey is executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and a catalyst in the coalition of seventeen foundations known as Divest-Invest Philanthropy. Its members have agreed to pull out of fossil fuel stocks and invest in companies committed to climate change solutions.
Thomas Van Dyck, a self-described child of corporate America, was so convinced of the power of socially responsible investing that he’s made a career out of it. He’s now senior vice president, financial adviser of RBC Wealth Management, and board chair of As You Sow, that’s a shareholder advocacy foundation.
Welcome to both of you.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Thank you for having us.
BILL MOYERS: Skeptics say your campaign to divest is a flea on the tail of an elephant, a nuisance to the fossil fuel industry, but no real threat. How do you respond to that?
ELLEN DORSEY: Frankly, four years ago, I was incredibly pessimistic that we could have any impact on this climate change issue. In 2009, the governments of the world failed to come to any kind of meaningful agreement at the Copenhagen meeting.
In 2010, climate legislation failed in the US Senate. And into that vacuum stepped a student movement. And they did take a play from the anti-apartheid playbook. And they said we're putting the focus right on the industry itself. And because the industry is driving the problem, it is funding denial of the problem. It is refusing to advance safe and clean alternatives. And it's shutting down the policy process with campaign contributions and lobbying. And so by putting the target on the fossil fuel industry, the goal is not to have an immediate economic impact on the fossil fuel industry but to isolate it as a moral pariah like apartheid, like tobacco.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Remember in South Africa days, they said, look, divestment doesn't make any sense. And then Desmond Tutu said, we don't want our chains made more comfortable. We need to have people pull out, to help with the economic transition of that society. I think divestment from fossil fuels is the same. Their vision of what the planet looks like and the idea of being able to drill and burn all the fossil fuels that they have on their balance sheets today is just something that civilization cannot survive.
ELLEN DORSEY: The fact that ExxonMobil has come out, albeit with a ridiculous report on their stranded asset risks, they're already on the defensive. They're already having to defend their position on climate change. And that's success. That's movement. It's progress we haven't seen to date.
BILL MOYERS: What's the best argument made against what the two of you are asking college and university endowments to do? The one that impresses you although you don't agree with it.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: The one that doesn't work is that it costs return. That one I'm not impressed with at all. Because there's no need for the endowments to give up return for divesting from fossil fuels. With apartheid, we literally asked foundations and pension funds to remove 40 percent of the S&P 500 from their portfolios. That's a heavy lift. 40 percent of the S&P 500. In the case of the Carbon Tracker 200, which is the 200 largest carbon-producing companies, which is what the students are asking the endowments to remove, that only represents about 7.8 percent of the S&P 500. So it's a much smaller lift.
ELLEN DORSEY: My foundation is divested from fossil fuels. And we're invested over 10 percent of our assets in clean tech and renewables. We've done quite well in the market. As a case study, we demonstrate that there's no impact. I think the argument that some universities have made around what should they be investing in. If they divest from fossil fuels, what should they be investing in? I think that's a legitimate question to be asking. But I would actually turn that on its head and say, when we begin to move the assets, we will be catalyzing the innovation and the energy future that the world demands. And that they should be playing a role in that, particularly academic institutions because they are the center of innovation, and research, and education, and the training of the leaders of the next generation.
They're precisely the ones that should be trying to create that kind of new-- those new models. Those new energy models, those new investment models. And I think foundations also have a very important role. Our investments should be a kind of venture capital to create that innovation in investments.
BILL MOYERS: Take Harvard. It's the big fish in the pond, $32 billion in endowment. The president of Harvard says that what you two want, she didn't call you by name but you can imagine who she had in mind, is unwarranted and unwise; that it would come at a substantial economic cost to the university. Then there’s Bowdoin College, small college in Maine with a billion dollar endowment. And the chief of Bowdoin's billion-dollar endowment says divesting would have cost the college $100 million over the last decade. And I suspect if she were sitting here, she would say to you, Tom Van Dyck, wouldn't that be fiducially irresponsible on my part?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: I would say that's bad math. I'd say you don't have creative enough people running your money for you if that's the case. What is a problem is you have these different hedge funds that they're involved in that have particular funds that they can't control what's actually held in that. And so they're worried they'll have to fire that particular hedge fund.
BILL MOYERS: And they don't like to do that--
THOMAS VAN DYCK: And they don't want to do that.
BILL MOYERS: --particularly if they’re producing good returns.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: But if enough endowments get together and say, hey, why don't you set up a sleeve that is fossil-fuel free, and you can short the coal companies, and, you know, and go long the solar companies, and you can hedge that if you want? But you just can't be buying the top 200 companies.
My guess is, is given the size of that market, that those hedge funds would say, sure, we'll set up a sleeve for you guys. You know, we'll humor you. And if they put pressure on their managers to do that, my guess is the managers will do that. Right now, they're not willing to take that next step and pressure those managers. All they need to do is ask.
ELLEN DORSEY: I would also argue that looking back over the past ten years, we've seen dramatic changes in the financial markets. And I think it's problematic to try and look at the past ten years and predict the future. And if you look at the case studies of the institutions like my foundation and other foundations that we're partnering with that have in fact divested from fossil fuels, invested in climate solutions, renewables, and clean tech, we‘ve done very well in the market in the near term, short term. And we're confident when you look at the projections for renewables and you look at the risks, the financial risks of staying invested in fossil fuels over the long term, I feel like we are making the right bet. We are the ones investing in the future, and we'll do well and have done well.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: And I do think coal is a precursor to that. I mean, if you look at what coal has done for the last four or five years, coal has dropped dramatically. It's a very poor-performing asset.
BILL MOYERS: In the market?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: In the market.
BILL MOYERS: Price, shares, too?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Oh yeah, it's absolutely been crushed. And we think that oil could be-- that could be a precursor to what might happen to oil in the next decade or so. So it's really about looking at the fiduciary risk and the valuation, because if these oil companies don't responsibly deal with that, there's going to be a risk there associated with owning those companies.
ELLEN DORSEY: But let me shift gears a little bit. Because you raised this issue of fiduciary duty. And I would argue that any institution that receives charitable tax status because they serve the public good has to look at whether their investments are, in fact, serving the public good. And there could not be a, arguably, a more stark case about the role of the fossil fuel industry in driving climate change.
And if you have a mission to protect the public good, climate change will impact that dramatically, whether your focus is education, whether your focus is the environment, whether your focus is human rights. Climate change will impact your mission as a charitable institution. And so I think as a fiduciary matter, to protect your mission, you should be looking at your investments in fossil fuels. And when you couple that with the financial risks associated with staying in fossil fuels over the long term, because as a fiduciary, you're to be looking at the long term viability of your investments. I think the ethical and the financial align in a pretty powerful way.
BILL MOYERS: But I've heard foundation executives say, you know, we get it, Ellen. We-- and Tom, you're asking us to take the high road. But to do the Lord's work, we need to get the highest return on our investments. And those fossil fuel companies deliver it. Should they take the high road at the risk of doing less of the Lord's work, less of their mission?
ELLEN DORSEY: I don't think that is the right framing, because I don't think they sacrifice returns. So I would contest that--
THOMAS VAN DYCK: No, nothing out there financially that demonstrates that. So if you look back in time, in all the information that's out there, it doesn't support the fact that you have to give up return. It's something that they're hiding behind, as opposed to acting.
And that's part of the problem. For years, they've said that if you do socially responsible investing, you’re going to have to give up return. But in fact, having strong environment, social, and governance practices as a management team is actually best business practice, is what it is.
ELLEN DORSEY: But I would argue something else. If you're a foundation and you're-- actually whatever your mission. But particularly if your mission is human rights or environment, how is it possible that you can have your investments undercutting the work of your grantees? If your investments are driving the problem that you're asking your grantees to solve, that's a problem. Those should be aligned, your investments and your grant making.
BILL MOYERS: Here's what one foundation executive would say to that. I talked to him last week. And he said, ask them how anyone's hands can be completely clean in a society as capitalist as ours.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: I think that's a fair question. I mean, society's addicted to oil. And we need to get off of it. And we need to start moving aggressively in that way.
ELLEN DORSEY: There is nothing that would stop the fossil fuel industry from using the capital expenditures that it's currently-- the amounts of capital being expended for new fossil fuel energy. There’s nothing that would stop them from instead shifting that to clean and safe energy sources. There's nothing stopping them from doing that. However, they're not. That says that we need to take action.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Fossil fuel companies receive $1.9 trillion in subsidies globally on an annual basis. So here's this very, very profitable industry being funded by governments around the world to the tune of $1.9 trillion to basically drill more oil. So they're saying, nothing's going to stop us. We have the regulators in our pocket. They're not going to make us change.
BILL MOYERS: The scientific community says that to avoid possible catastrophe, we have to stay below two degrees celsius of warming, right?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Correct.
BILL MOYERS: And to stay at that level, we cannot release more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide in the future. But the fossil fuel companies have nearly five times that amount of coal, oil, and gas reserves of which they would have to leave 80 percent in the ground if they didn't take us-- if we don't go over the edge to catastrophe. Are you asking them to walk away from billions of billions, maybe trillions of dollars that are stored in the earth?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: And that's the risk to investors. It's because they can't burn that without having huge cost to society, to other businesses, to the way of our life, to people all around the planet. So that's why we're saying, look it, investors, there's a huge risk here. Because the governments aren't going to tolerate allowing the fossil fuel companies to wreak this type of havoc on civilization.
BILL MOYERS: But you don't leave that much money in the ground. You wouldn't bury it in your backyard, which in effect is what you're asking them to do.
ELLEN DORSEY: We don't have a choice. We don't have a choice. And it's not really a question of what the fossil fuel industry is going to do with their reserves. It's a question of what we as a global society are going to do to orchestrate the energy transition that we need. If they burn those reserves, we cook the planet irreparably. That can't happen.
And what is so powerful about this movement is that it is a true alignment between ethical and financial interests. Because not only must we act to stop the worst excesses of climate change, but financially, it's the smart thing to do. We have to deflate that bubble before it bursts.
BILL MOYERS: I saw research recently from the University of Oxford, that studied divestment movements, earlier divestment movements, against the arms industry, the pornography industry, the gambling industry, and concluded that their direct financial impact on price shares was small. What makes you think this time is different? And how many billions of dollars would it take for you to nuke the energy business? I mean, to really make them hurt?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Making them and making society realize that we have to get off of our addiction to oil is really the key. That we have to remove oil or limit oil or use it much more responsibly than we do today. As we-- it can be measured in billions of dollars. But really what it is is say look, take your capital expenditures and invest them in something in clean technology, broadly defined.
Now I don't want to just think-- not just solar and wind, very broadly across the entire economy. If the oil companies took their excess capital and did it, that would be a good thing. If the governments would take their subsidies, $1.9 trillion dollars and move it from fossil fuels and give it to clean technology, energy efficiency, buildings, LED lighting, promoting that, you could get catalytic change, significant innovation, job creation, and you wouldn't be affecting, you know, people who are generally economically disadvantaged.
So I think that it's not just about measuring how much the company drops its access to capital. These are very, very wealthy companies, which is one of the reasons why we're trying to turn them into a moral pariah. Because yes, we all do use oil for now. But we need to start using it much more wisely. And we're going to have to make some choices. And we need to spur that type of innovation, like we did under Kennedy to go to the Moon, we need to spur the same innovation to create a sustainable economy that's based on the energy of the future, not on the energy of the past.
ELLEN DORSEY: And Bill, that same Oxford study that said that there was not always an immediate economic impact from the divestment activity ultimately concluded that there was powerful political impact in many of these campaigns, including the apartheid campaign. And that's ultimately what we need is to put a price on carbon. And we need to have a policy process that can be successful and is not captured by the influence of the fossil fuel industry. And that's, I think, the big play, at stake.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever stop to think, why are we having to do this? Why do we have to pressure corporations to be good stewards of the Earth and in this case of the future? I mean, shouldn't this be happening from within them?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Yes. And it is happening from within some corporations. So, for example, the corporations that are using lots of electricity right now, okay? They can go out and get a power purchase agreement for 20 years on renewable power, solar or wind. And they can lock in a price. If I have a huge electrical cost and it’s bouncing all over the place because of natural gas, I can't go out and lock in natural gas for 20 years right now at six cents a kilowatt.
I can lock in solar and wind between six and ten cents a kilowatt. But I can't lock in natural gas. So my cost line goes all over the place. If I'm a business, what I care about is certainty. What I don't like is risk. Tell me what the price is. Tell me what it's going to be for a long, long time. And I can model that. Put a tax on carbon. Make it 25 bucks a ton. Increase it $10 a ton a year for 20 years. That'll push it to $225 a ton. If that happens, I can model that. I can model my expenses. What I don't want is uncertainty. If you give me certainty, I can model that and allocate capital accordingly in investments that can make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: And climate change is nothing but unstable and uncertain.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: That's right. And it creates more uncertainty, which drives corporations crazy. And the innovators, the best businesses are already realizing if they use their resources more efficiently, more productively, more sustainably, that they'll beat their competition within the very same industries. And they're outperforming. Because it’s best business. It’s ultimately best business.
ELLEN DORSEY: Here's another reason why I'm so excited. This is a corporate accountability movement, truly. In its purpose. And if you meet with the leaders, the student leaders of this movement, some are business students, some are political science students. They are extremely sophisticated. They can sit down and talk to you about everything related to the climate science to market trends for renewable energy.
And they are part of a movement that is bringing about change, but will also be moving forward as corporate heads in the future. They are going to be our elected officials. They're going to run NGOs and foundations. And they will have cut their teeth on this movement. And they will believe that corporations can do it differently. They will believe that we as a society should demand that corporations meet a certain level, a minimum level of performance, in terms of environmental and human rights impacts. So I am optimistic. When you meet with these students, you can't help but be inspired, when you think that they're going to be the ones that will run the energy companies of the future. And if you look back--
BILL MOYERS: If there is a future.
ELLEN DORSEY: Let's--
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Well, I mean--
ELLEN DORSEY: Absolutely.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: One of the students--
BILL MOYERS: I'm not being facetious, given what--
ELLEN DORSEY: No.
BILL MOYERS: --you all have said.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: No, I mean, and it's—
ELLEN DORSEY: There’s a future.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: And given what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says. I mean, if you read the facts, of what they say the warming climate, what will happen. One of the students that we were with was from Harvard. And she actually said, you know, for the first time in our history, unlike with the Civil Rights Movement, where you saw Bull Connor, you know, and the dogs, you know, hitting and beating the blacks. Where you--
ELLEN DORSEY: Or apartheid, where you saw the--
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Or apartheid.
ELLEN DORSEY: --the battles in Soweto.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Right. Or where Vietnam was brought into our living rooms, where you can actually see the direct consequences of what our actions are so that we change. In this case, we are actually going to have to react prior to experiencing the full consequences of it. But we must remember, nature bats last. And we have to react before that happens.
BILL MOYERS: But isn't it terribly hard to get people to act on what they don't see and we can't see?
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Well, that's the challenge. That's the challenge. And as Desmond Tutu said, I think it's true, you know, custodians of creation. And this is where, I think, the religious do play a role in this. As custodians of creation, that is not an empty title. We are stewards of God's Eden here.
And interestingly enough, God has showed us through the powers of nature how we can actually create power through using the sun and wind and things that are ubiquitous. That we can tap it through our innovation, by using our mind to figure that out. Doing it cleanly, efficiently, and sustainably, rather than owning a commodity, drilling it up, charging people for it, and ending society as we know it.
That's the juxtaposition. And the students are like, this is cleaner. Creates more jobs. It's more sustainable. It doesn't exploit the poor and the underdeveloped countries. And actually, you can get solar and wind at a much cheaper price than you can some of these oil-- and it doesn't pollute. It's much cleaner.
ELLEN DORSEY: And if we can't get our government to lead and to take effective action, then we do need the universities, the faith groups, the foundations, the pension funds to take catalytic action. And that's really what calling for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in climate solutions, the energy sources of the future is what this is about.
BILL MOYERS: Tom, Ellen, thank you very much for being with me today.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: Thank you, Bill.
ELLEN DORSEY: Thanks for having us.
THOMAS VAN DYCK: We appreciate it.
BILL MOYERS: At our website BillMoyers.com, there’s ongoing coverage and analysis of global climate change issues. And you can find out much more about the fossil fuel divestiture campaign.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.