Frequently Asked Questions about Divestment
Q: I love it. How can I help?
A: You can help by spreading the word, signing up for action alerts, volunteering with us, or donating cash to the cause.
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Q: Haven't The Gates Foundation already divested?
In November 2015, the Gates Foundation year end 2014 tax filings revealed that they had sold almost $820 million in ExxonMobil (just in the nick of time given the Exxon scandal that would break in 2015). However, they done so without making any announcement and without any commitment to continue divesting from fossil fuels. This is important because divestment is about making a moral statement and thus using your moral influence to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. The Gates Foundation may have removed their financial capital from ExxonMobil, but by remaining silent the are very much keeping their moral capital on the table.
For a more in depth answer to this question you can read Gates Divest organizer Alec Connon's article in Common Dreams.
Q: The Gates Foundation do such wonderful work around the world...won’t divestment from fossil fuels harm their ability to finance their philanthropy?
A: The first response to this is that money should not trump morality. To any institution that is dedicated to social good, turning a profit should not be more important than its values.
Secondly, no, divestment from fossil fuels will not harm their ability to finance their philanthropy. Indeed, numerous studies have now shown that fossil fuel divestment can occur with little added risk to a portfolio – and often with substantial gains.
One of the first studies to try and work out the divestment risk was the Apiero Investment Group’s Do The Investment Math. In this study the Apiero group did a historical back test of the Russel 3000 and the fossil free portfolio from 1997 – 2012. They found that the fossil free portfolio had higher returns 73% of time.
These reports have, in part, led to Paul Humphreys of the Teller Institute stating: “(…) analysts and investors are beginning to grapple with the prospect that the historical outperformance of fossil-free companies may be as illusory as the tech boom of the 1990s and the housing bubble at the beginning of this century.”
Here Humphreys is alluding to the greatest risk of all to fossil fuel share prices – and one that is not accounted for in the recent studies showing divestment need not harm profits: The carbon bubble.
Q: What is the Carbon Bubble?
When governments finally act to keep climate change to below two degree Celsius., 80% of fossil fuel reserves will be unburnable, and will become stranded assets: unsaleable. This translates into potential losses for the fossil fuel industry estimated to be as high as $28 trillion in just the next two decades.
These potential losses are what are referred to as the carbon bubble.
Furthermore, with people such as the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chief of the World Bank, and the President of the United States saying things like “the vast amount of reserves are unburnable”, “through policy reforms, we can divest and tax (…) the carbon that threatens development gains” and “we’re not going to be able to burn it all,” the threat of the carbon bubble has now entered mainstream discourse.
Q: So it is both financially and morally prudent for the Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels?
Q: Hang on a minute, I want to know just a little more about divestment first. For example, we all use fossil fuels every day, so isn’t divestment hypocritical?
No-one is arguing for an overnight end of all fossil fuel use. Instead, the divestment campaign calls for investors to immediately freeze all new investments in fossil fuels and to commit to selling off their coal, oil, and gas investments over five years.
Of course, fossil fuel burning will continue after that too, but the point is to reverse today’s trend of ever-higher carbon emissions into a trend of ever-lower carbon emissions...something which is vital if we are to have any hope of achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendations that we reduce annual investment in fossil fuels by at least $30 billion per year in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Q: Divestment won’t bankrupt fossil fuel companies and isn’t it therefore pointless?
Not at all. Learn why here.
Q: But isn’t shareholder engagement a better way to drive change within the fossil fuel industry?
Despite decades of this method of approach, shareholder advocacy has been completely ineffective at influencing how much carbon the world’s fossil fuel companies intend to burn.
Q: Aren’t fossil fuels helping to pull developing nations out of poverty?
To quote the United Nation's Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project: “Deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving socio-economic development are not mutually exclusive. [Rather] robust economic growth and rising prosperity are consistent with the objective of deep decarbonisation. They form two sides of the same coin and must be pursued together as part of sustainable development”
These findings have been backed up by comprehensive reports from the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, HSBC and more.
Stay tuned for an upcoming, highly detailed blog post on this exact topic.
Q: But we can’t bring renewable energy to scale fast enough, can we?
Unsurprisingly, this claim is supported by the projections of companies like ExxonMobil and Shell, who claim that the world will only be providing 3% of its energy from wind and solar by 2040. It’s a testament to the fossil fuel industry’s PR power that it has much of the world believing this, when 80% of global energy industry experts believe that the world’s electricity system can be 70% renewable by 2050, and almost half of them believe that we can achieve 70% in just 15 years.
Q I have one final question that’s bugging me… Bill and Melinda worked hard for their money. Isn’t it up to them how they spend it?
Bill Gates himself understands that global warming will lead to widespread starvation, uncertainty, and risk, and he knows that fossil fuel "business as usual" threatens us all.
It's everyone’s business to try and prevent the worst of that climate change, and Bill and Melinda Gates are in a unique position to be leaders in this.
“Gates donated $218 million to prevent polio and measles in places like the Niger Delta, yet invested $423 million in oil companies whose delta pollution literally kills the children the Foundation tries to help.”
Charles Piller, The Nation