Right now, students at hundreds of colleges across the nation are formally calling on universities to divest from fossil fuels. Now, for perhaps the first time, elected officials are joining those calls. Ventura County Democrats have passed the first major resolution calling on California's pension funds yesterday and colleges to dump their stock in coal, oil, and gas.
Last fall, with help from Bill McKibben and his affiliate climate action group, 350.org, students began organizing to petition massively endowed institutions like Harvard to dump their holdings in companies like Exxon and BP. They're making headway—a number of smaller colleges have already agreed to divest. By pushing for these institutions to cut drop their investments with these companies, the divestment movement aims to hit the industry directly in its bottom line, while heaping on the negative press.
But until now, the battleground for the anti-apartheid movement-inspired divestment fight was largely limited to college campuses. Few political institutions had officially recognized or joined in the effort to purge these multi-billion dollar endowments of their holdings in fossil fuel companies.
Yet the Ventura Democrats' resolution calls "for divestment of fossil fuel companies by the University of California, California State University, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and Ventura County Employees Retirement Association," according to the party. While it is entirely a symbolic gesture, and a partisan one at that, it marks the first time that a central committee in either one of the nation's two major political parties has come out in official support of divestment from the fossil fuels companies that are contributing most to global warming.
Here's some of the text of the resolution:
WHEREAS, almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, consequences of inaction will result in devastating floods and drought;
WHEREAS, scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees, while proven coal, oil, and gas reserves equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming;
and WHEREAS, California’s institutions of higher education and pension funds should encourage only those investments that allow students and retirees to live healthy lives without the impact of a warming planet, and thus campaigns to divest from fossil fuels have begun at campuses within both the University of California and California State University systems;
Ventura County, it should be noted, is Californian oil country. It's home to offshore rigs, a considerable workforce, and a strong industry presence. And it's more conservative than its southern neighbor, L.A. County. Regardless, the resolution passed "nearly unanimously."
RL Miller, the resolution's author, said it sailed through with major concerns voiced only by a labor leader representing oil workers. Out of 40 members voting, only two voted against it.
"The fact that it went through on a voice vote shows that climate change is a big concern across the county, from the exurbs to the drilling regions," Miller said.
In an email, she explained that residents of Ventura take climate change quite seriously.
"For our county, the implications of climate change are huge," she wrote in an email. "Our west half is very flat--the Oxnard Plain is the most fertile soil for strawberries on the planet, but it'll also be hit hard by sea level rise. And there's a fair number of oil rigs still operating both on and offshore--we're sitting atop part of the Monterey Shale. Our east county is on much higher ground; it's also home to the Ronald Reagan Library, a very active tea party movement, and Los Angeles far exurbs. It's politically very purple."
Miller says she hopes that other central committees will take note and follow Ventura's lead. The stakes are high—California is home to some of the biggest and most influential pension funds and university endowments in the nation. CalPERS, the $254 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, is the biggest pension fund in the country.
"CalPERS and CalSTRS are both responsive to appearances and public pressure," Miller noted, "they both divested all of their stocks in gun manufacturers shortly after the Sandy Hook incident. The UCs and CSUs may be difficult, but they've got a lot of activist students and alumni along with huge endowments."
The divestment campaign has proved a lightning rod for campus climate activism. The Nation, Rolling Stone, and outlets like CBC radio have called it the "largest student movement" in years. As Bill McKibben recently noted, the "campaign to demand divestment from fossil fuel stock emerged from nowhere in late fall to suddenly become the largest student movement in decades. Already it's drawing widespread media attention; already churches and city governments are joining students in the fight. It's where the action all of a sudden is."
The Ventura County Democrats' resolution offers proof that the movement is primed to move into a larger political arena. Whether the parties' involvement may prove polarizing remains to be seen. But Congressional Republicans have blocked any legislative action on climate change, and while Obama has vocally supported putting a price on carbon emissions and fighting global warming, he continues to accelerate the sale and development of the nation's coal and oil resources. The divestment movement has emerged as a popular outlet for frustrated citizens to push for action on climate change. And the more disparate institutions that join a chorus already manned by students, the better chance it will be heard.