Solutions 6/7: Divesting habits and investments

By Huck Fairman

Fierce thunder storms pounded Princeton.

Across the country hundreds of tornados battered Texas, Oklahoma, and most mid-western states, and on to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, over 12 consecutive days.

Downpours and flooding rivers drowned portions of many states. All 77 of  Oklahoma’s counties declared states of emergency. A spokesman for the National Weather Service said that we are heading into “unchartered territory.” What this means is that we have brought upon ourselves a different climate, and it is ravaging the land.

Science and the United Nations tell us we have maybe ten years to change, before it becomes too late. Reportedly, 80 countries want to increase their climate pledges ahead of schedule as determined by the Paris Climate Accord.

Locally, most of us understand of the steps we need to take: get off fossil fuels, and turn to green power – now.

In the Princeton area, the numbers of Tesla’s less-expensive model are increasing noticeably, along with other electric cars. Beyond these individual commitments, we are seeing community-wide, as well as county and state policies turning to renewable energy. New Brunswick has adopted a program which will produce 50% of its power needs from renewable sources. The Sierra Club has received commitments from five states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to turn to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Another approach has seen a coalition of Green organizations joining together to form, the DivestNJ Coalition. Their goal is to get state and private investors to end investing in fossil fuel companies, thereby reducing the financial support for fossil fuel usage. The coalition brings together 350.Org, NJ Sierra Club, Environment NJ, Green Faith and Food and Water Watch in an effort to urge investors to divest from those fossil fuel companies.

Recently the New Jersey State Investment Council’s 14 members met in Trenton to determine the SIC’s upcoming investment strategies for their member pensioners. In which investment categories will there be the best returns?

SIC’s report stated that until recently 2019 had seen good returns, but lately, with tariff and trade wars, American and other markets are now down. Some investors are changing to Treasuries and bonds, even while Private Equities continued to perform well. But nationally and maybe globally, productivity, for a variety reasons, is predicted to decline. The consensus, as reported by SIC’s spokesman called therefore for a “shift in allocations.”

The DivestNJ Coalition presented, however, a more focused analysis: namely that the fossil fuel energy sector has been doing poorly for years. ExxonMobil, as an example, had profits for the first quarter of 2019 as being only 50% of last year’s levels. For NJ’s SIC to maintain its fossil fuel investments would have “negative outcomes” for its pensions.

Thus for both economic and environmental reasons, DivestNJ Coalition urged the immediate divestment by NJ SIC of its fossil fuel companies holdings. DivestNJ warned that because divestment is a multi-year process, it is essential to begin immediately. Given our changing climates, the time for caution is past. Climate and weather evidence, as well as economic evidence, all support the case for rapid divestment.

Ted Glick, of 350NJ-Rockland, reports that his personal switch to an all-renewable energy portfolio has brought in compelling returns. Gregory Gorman, also of NJ Sierra Club, provides a wealth of data supporting the switch to renewables.

It would seem wise, therefore, for SIC to consider joining this trend. Beyond our borders, there is further evidence. The nation of Norway has divested completely from its investments in its oil and gas exploration and production companies. Moreover, more than 1,000 institutions worldwide have committed to divestment.

One set of policy-makers that has not been won over is the Ivy League endowment governors. They, unlike their counterparts at other universities, claim that the technological changes their schools are adopting will reduce emissions without threatening endowments.

But one essential point, where those endowment departments diverge from DivestNJ, is over the urgency for the nation and the world to take any and all steps, in the 10 years we have to preserve a livable climate.

While it is understandable that NJ SIC and Ivy League endowment departments feel they have strong reasons to maintain their investment strategies, they seem to be ignoring the recent growth of green portfolios and the declining performances of fossil fuel companies. And they also seem to be dismissing the role they could take to help preserve the well-being of civilization. Again, as the Weather Service warned: we are heading into uncharted territory. Business as usual will not preserve the world we’ve known.