BOULDER, Colo. — Climate change activists spent Valentine’s Day weekend wooing supporters for fossil fuel divestiture with their first-ever Global Divestment Day, but not everyone was feeling the love.
While the hoopla elicited some victories — notably a statement in favor of curbing coal power generation from the leaders of Great Britain’s three main parties — other more sparsely attended events underscored the divestment drive’s uphill battle to build momentum and gain converts as opponents increasingly challenge the idea of selling off fossil fuel stocks as an effective way to fight global warming.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, only about three dozen students at the school of 30,000 showed up at Friday’s protest. Organizers clad in orange T-shirts gamely held a 10-minute rally with two student speakers and a few chants before dispersing for a march around the campus.
The small turnout was striking given that the university is known for its environmental activism, the board of regents is scheduled to hear a proposal Friday from CU Divest, and it was 60 degrees and sunny.
“Even in Boulder, Colorado the #divest events can’t attract many students!” said a Twitter post from the pro-industry group Divestment Facts.
Elsewhere, bitterly cold temperatures put a chill on the global warming activism. At the New York state comptroller’s office in Albany, “about a dozen activists stood in frigid weather,” according to the Albany Times Union.
A photo in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed 10 people marching through a crosswalk — one holding a sign — below a caption, “St. Louis ‘Divestment Day’ event draws few.”
Organizers countered the focus was more about breadth than depth. Pulling off 450 events in 60 countries over two days constituted a “huge success,” said 350.org spokesman Jay Carmona.
“In a massive day of action such as this one, some events will be larger than others, but the real power of this day was in the collective voice of a global community saying fossil fuels are the past, and we can do better,” Mr. Carmona said in an email.
He said that a rally in London drew a crowd of about 500. Meanwhile, the mayor of the English city of Bristol said the city council would not make direct investments in fossil fuels, although it currently doesn’t have any, according to Fossil Free UK.
“It’s no surprise that just in the past six months, there have been 24 new divestment institutional commitments, and there will be even more coming,” Mr. Carmona contended.
Disinclined to disinvest
What has eluded the four-year-old movement is a divestment commitment from a major U.S. university. Dozens of higher-education institutions have declined to dump the coal and gas stocks in their endowments, including Harvard, Yale and the University of California, despite pressure from student groups backed by 350.org, which is funded in part by the Rockefeller Family Fund.
The movement’s biggest victory to date is a May resolution by Stanford to divest its $18.7 billion endowment of companies “whose principal business is the mining of coal for energy generation,” but not oil or gas.
Still, 350.org founder Bill McKibben insisted Thursday that “we’ve got the bad guys on the run,” referring to the fossil fuel industry in a post touting Global Divestment Day on Huffington Post.
Certainly he has the industry’s attention. Several days before the event launched, the economic consulting firm Compass Lexecon released a study, financed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, one of the industry’s leading trade groups, warning that fossil fuel divestment could harm investment portfolios.
The lead author, University of Chicago professor emeritus Daniel R. Fischel, who tracked hypothetical investment portfolios over 50 years, described fossil fuel divestment as a “clear loser from the perspective of the financial performance of the endowments.”
“For ideological reasons, to try to convince universities to sacrifice their core mission of educating students, supporting research, providing scholarships to disadvantaged kids, to support somebody else’s ideological agenda just really makes no sense,” Mr. Fischel said.
The study also found that the South Africa divestiture campaign of the 1980s, which drew significantly more institutional support, “had little or no impact on the stock prices of targeted companies.”
In a statement, 350.org said the study “cherry-picks” the data and pointed to an Associated Press-commissioned study in May 2013 that found “by one measure, endowments would have been better off had they divested 10 years ago.”
Still, with universities leery of the financial risk, the movement is relying on public and campus pressure to achieve its goals. That didn’t happen earlier this month at Yale, where Fossil Free Yale postponed indefinitely its scheduled rally “due to unfavorable weather conditions and other logistical issues, including some cancellations from speakers and performance groups,” according to the Yale Daily News.
In August, a Yale committee rejected a proposal to recommend fossil fuel divestment to its trustees.
At Harvard University, students avoided the freezing temperatures by holding a sit-in outside the office of President Drew Faust, who said in an October 2013 letter that divestment would harm Harvard’s mission and warned that “we should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the university as a political actor rather than an academic institution.”
About 30 students with Divest Harvard began the sit-in Thursday inside Massachusetts Hall. By the time the protesters called it quits 24 hours later, there were 14 students remaining, according to The Harvard Crimson.