The fossil fuel industry is sitting on enough proven reserves to pump five times as much carbon pollution into atmosphere as it can withstand to still support a climate conducive to human civilization. The stock valuations of Big Oil and Big Coal are dependent on business plans that demands these reserves be burned. Indeed these companies are spending billions of dollars exploring for more. A way must be found to keep the dirty fuels in the ground. Unfortunately, the political power of the fossil fuel industry has thwarted every federal legislative effort to regulate carbon. It’s up to us now.
At Thursday’s Providence City Council meeting, a fossil fuel divestment resolution introduced by Majority Leader Seth Yurdin and backed by Council President Michael Solomon with enough other members to ensure passage will be taken up for consideration.
If the resolution passes (as seems likely), Providence will be the 16th municipality in the country to commit to divesting. Providence has a special place among the 16, because it will become the only Capital City and the biggest city on the East Coast to make this bold statement against what has truly become a rogue industry.
The fossil fuel divestment initiative, branded simply Fossil Free, is the brainchild of 350.org founder Bill McKibben who came to Brown University in November as part of his nationwide barnstorming “Do The Math” tour. The tour sparked a movement on college campuses across the country now at 300 schools and counting, including strong campaigns at Brown, RISD, and the RI State Schools. The movement has clearly now spread beyond campuses to other large institutions. The growth of the Fossil Free movement has been astoundingly quick, faster than the Anti-South African Apartheid disinvestment movement of the late 1970s and 1980s upon which it is patterned.
I like to imagine the CEOs of the fossil fuel industry are beginning to squirm a little in their seats. While their share prices have not yet taken a hit, the combined investment funds of schools, churches, and municipalities makes up a very big number, more than a trillion dollars. If it’s all disinvested from fossil fuel stocks, the impact will be material financially. The bigger impact however is the public relations dilemma that the industry faces, which is potentially a much bigger financial liability.
Environmentalists are overcoming the billion dollar advertising budget of the fossil fuel giants. Using grassroots power, Fossil Free has finally been able to paint the most profitable industry in the history of the planet as the dangerous villain it has become. That’s why the symbolism of the Providence vote on Thursday will be more important than the tens of thousands of dollars that the City will eventually divest from fossil fuel companies.
Cities around the country will follow the leadership of Providence, the schools of the City too. In the process, more people will be educated about the danger posed by the fossil fuel industry, and perhaps even the political will to deal with the problem in Washington will at last be found. The City Council should be applauded for being on the right side of history. Consider coming down to City Hall on Thursday to do it in person.