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UC’s investments in fossil fuels are hurting the planet

Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy | December 8, 2013

I ran this op ed last week in the Daily Californian:

Today, UC Berkeley and most institutions are financially invested in destroying our future.

This may sound a little bit surprising to some — even unfounded. Let me explain. When it comes to climate change, the scientific community has presented a clear, unambiguous message: Human burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — is putting our world at risk.

And this, in fact, is a needless risk. By immediately reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can reduce the damages that we are currently on the path to creating. Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and many of the costly recent fires and droughts around the world have been exacerbated — caused, to one degree or another, by the changes in the climate that our reliance on fossil fuels has caused.

Though UC Berkeley and the UC system are leaders in addressing the climate crisis through groundbreaking research and education, the companies they have invested in continue to leave a significant “carbon signature” on the environment. Many of these investments were made before the full impact of these choices on the climate was clear. Continuing the financial investment in companies like Exxon, Chevron and ConocoPhillips — even though some of these companies have made a start in greening their portfolio — sends the wrong message. These companies, and many more, have the capacity and the opportunity to evolve from stalwarts of the old energy order that must change, into supporters of a new clean-energy system that California and the world desperately need.

The 200 largest fossil fuel companies hold, in the form of projects and assets, about five times the amount of carbon in their reserves that the scientific community has deemed responsible to even consider burning in order to avert runaway climate change. The several thousand researchers on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change have determined with greater than 95 percent certainty that human activity is currently causing climate change. Researchers from across the entire UC system and our state government are critical leaders in efforts to advance both climate science and climate solutions, as well as the adaptation side of the equation.

The overwhelming majority of major energy companies, however, has shown far too few signs of transitioning to low-carbon projects. The fossil fuel industry collectively spends more than $600 billion per year exploring for new hydrocarbons and, in some cases, very significant amounts of money on climate denial, lobbying Congress to maintain fossil fuel subsidies and other efforts that work against the needed and feasible clean-energy transition. These companies are publicly traded and investor-owned, supported in large part by institutional investors like UC Berkeley and the University of California.

Instead of funding the problem, we should be investing in solutions that at once aid the transition to a low-carbon economy and grow our university’s bottom line. There is no lack of financially and environmentally sustainable reinvestment opportunities; as of yet, there is only a lack of leadership.

UC Berkeley has played a vital role as a leader in financial and social accountability. When other institutions refused, the campus listened to its students and the international calls for divestment from companies tied to grave social harm and injustice. As was similarly expressed during the South Africa, Sudan and tobacco divestment campaigns, students at UC Berkeley believe that their campus’s investments should reflect its values of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

In the case of fossil fuel investments, divesting is not only the moral thing to do but is also financially prudent. As fossil fuel companies continue expanding their search for more hydrocarbons, the world’s carbon budget is shrinking. From Canadian tar sands to shale oil, the ”bottom of the barrel” is proving to be increasingly dirty. When government regulation aligns with this reality — and it must — the vast majority of reserves will have to stay in the ground unburned, rendering them stranded assets. Remaining invested in fossil fuels is a bad bet all around.

With a new chancellor at UC Berkeley and a new UC president, both of whom are leaders in clean energy and climate protection, divestment at UC Berkeley and across the UC system will send a resounding message that the university takes all facets of its leadership position seriously. It will also encourage other institutions to do the same and build pressure for regional and global climate action.

As a faculty member who understands deeply the challenge climate change poses and the urgency with which action must be taken, I call on my fellow faculty to stand with the students of Fossil Free Cal and Fossil Free UC in calling on Chancellor Dirks, President Napolitano and the president of the Berkeley Foundation to be on the right side of history by moving our endowments away from fossil fuels and reinvesting in a sustainable future. Visit and sign on if you are as concerned as I am.

Comments to “UC’s investments in fossil fuels are hurting the planet

  1. As a former, long-time employee of one of those large oil companies, and now a Lecturer at Cal, I couldn’t agree more with Dan’s comments, and with the need to stand up for the future of the planet.

    For a brief moment (as such things go), there was some significant and well-intentioned work in the oil industry on renewable fuels, but in North America in general and for the U.S.-based majors, at least, that is now over. Look at their capital spending plans, which are all above $20 billion per year. Those plans are focused not on renewables, not on new products, not even on refining conventional fuels in a more efficient and environmentally-responsible manner, but rather on finding and extracting every molecule of fossil carbon that they possible can, everywhere in the world.

    In de-facto collaboration with OPEC, their goal is to keep oil and gas JUST cheap enough to keep the world economy addicted to those and only those sources of energy (along with coal, of course, although the natural gas producers are not above “greener-than-thou” coal bashing). And as long as extraction, processing, and distribution are the ONLY costs that fossil-fuel producers and end-users must bear, I am sad to say that renewables will not be cost-competitive until it is far, far too late for our planet.

    For a time, I thought that the oil companies could help lead the way to a world where fossil fuels gradually played a diminishing role in supplying the world’s energy needs, but their current leadership is interested only in maintaining a massive steam of fossil-driven profits. I strongly support divestiture as recommended above.

  2. There is no such thing as ‘clean-energy.’ Energy comes at a cost no matter how it is derived. I am not a proponent of fossil fuels.

    This article seems more like an advertisement from a nuclear engineer, that holds positions at varying institutions which includes corporations, than a call to save the planet.

    I ask this simple question: If not fossil fuels, then how do you propose to power the world day and night? I can only think of nuclear power plants — nuclear energy is not clean, just ask Australia, and comes at hefty environmental cost, just like fossil fuels.

    The lesson we are learning as humans is: which poison would you like to drink?

    The answer, for me, is less energy consumption — but that opens a whole new can of worms that people would probably prefer not to address.

    • “Which poison would you like to drink?”

      I guess that depends on whether you are fond of humanity and the environment. Given that nuclear power has saved 1.8 Million lives since 1971 by displacing fossil fuels (see link below), and that it has minimal (relative to fossil fuels) impact on the environment, is that a serious question? When faced with the current state of environmental affairs, the only responsible course of action is to get on course to eliminate fossil fuel usage as rapidly as possible, and THEN have a debate about how to replace it.

  3. Not only must we distance ourselves financially from fossil fuels, we can and must figure out how to live (well) without them, starting yesterday. This is both possible and urgent, and is already happening in surprising if often rather quiet ways.

    An unfortunate move by McKibben in articulating the divestment strategy was to dismiss reductions in demand as irrelevant. I hope we can move past that unhelpfully zero-sum logic to a more complementary approach.

    • Hi Reuben, thanks for voicing your thoughts here. I don’t think what McKibben is doing is pushing a zero-sum logic for addressing the climate crisis. I think is partnered with lots of folks doing important demand-side work.

      I think the important work that the divestment campaign and are doing is shifting the prevailing frame of thinking of the past 20 years about climate change from “I have found the enemy and it is us” to highlighting that there are in fact very, very powerful groups that are actively blocking progress toward a low carbon economy in order to maintain their destructive business models.

      McKibben’s message works to rebalance what has been an imbalance in our understanding of the way we’re going to achieve a transition to clean energy. I don’t think McKibben is ditching one for the other, but he is calling attention to a target that has been free riding on society’s culture of self-blame for the climate crisis.

      That said, just the other day McKibben led a webinar with Solar Mosaic on where to reinvest divested assets to help fund the low carbon economy. But right now is doing an important job of calling out the powerful forces that are blocking progress. My two cents on the matter, at least.

  4. @industrial progress

    First of all, I wouldn’t constitute 5 signatures from UC system as “many”, but it’s a nice start.

    I can say that many professors from across the UC system are also signing on in support of the divestment campaign, and many would welcome an honest debate on the merits, faults, and uncertainties of this campaign. As you say, I don’t think walking out of a debate is an effective tactic. I hope if we have a debate at Cal, we can have a debate where all sides of the issue can be heard, so students, professors, and staff can decide for themselves what their position would be.

    • The so called “cogent argument against divestment” you posted is authored by the Center for Industrial Progress, a “think thank” that promulgates misinformation and climate denial and that is closely tied with Koch-funded networks like the Heartland Institute, unabashed climate deniers with heavy ties to the fossil fuel industry. The CIP’s founder and president, Alex Epstein, is a blogger at Master Resource’s “Free Market Energy Blog,” is a past fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, and is often quoted saying things like “we should think of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear, as clean energy.”

      Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some of their “cogent arguments.” The authors of the letter tell us that we should be thankful for fossil fuels’ contributions over the past 150 years, including, not ironically, “a staggering decline in the number of climate-related deaths.” Then, without speaking to climate change or the necessity of transitioning to a low carbon economy once, the authors revert to condescension, claiming that ““What we ask for is a more rigorous education on energy and environmental issues” and that “Today’s students do not learn even basic facts about the energy sources that make our civilization possible.” I will point out that you are posting this letter on a blog post of a distinguished Professor of Energy and Lead Author of the IPCC. Moreover, many of the students advocating for divestment are themselves students of energy, well informed and educated about the intricacies of the issues at hand. The authors of the CIP’s letter are looking at a past fueled by fossil energy to argue that the future should look the same. Students and faculty advocating for divestment are looking at the past and using it to rethink a future rooted in clean and just energy production.

      Antonio, I ask that if you post arguments against divestment, that they be more credible than those authored by well-known climate deniers, the very people that are blocking a necessary and inevitable transition to a low-carbon economy.

    • from the letter: “we passionately believe that the economic and environmental benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the hazards, and that it is not a “necessary evil” but a moral imperative to make use of the most productive, life-giving energy sources available to us at any point in time.”

      There is nothing life-giving about methane releases in the arctic, atmospheric rivers, super typhoons, sea level rise, 2or climate refugees. Good luck with the rearguard action.

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