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Mass. Emerges As Hub Of Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

BOSTON — It’s a windy Valentine’s Day on the Harvard University campus and a small group of students is going through a stack of blue, pink and red paper hearts.

These are not your typical Valentines. They’re all directed at Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust — and they’re not exactly declarations of devotion.

“Please divest, this is my broken heart,” reads one, a squiggly line running down the middle.

The hearts, props for a “break up with fossil fuels” protest, are all strung together in a big, unruly pile.

College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Francisco on May 2, 2013. In an effort to slow the pace of climate change, students at more than 400 colleges are asking their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Francisco on May 2, 2013. In an effort to slow the pace of climate change, students at more than 400 colleges are asking their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The student activists have some trouble disentangling them. And when they walk into President Faust’s office in Massachusetts Hall, their paramour is nowhere to be found; the students leave their missives on a receptionist’s desk.

“I guess that was successful, yay!,” says one student, with a chuckle, afterward.

The students have been stymied before. In October, Faust wrote a letter to the Harvard community saying that, while she respects the “concern and commitment” shown by advocates, she doesn’t believe the university’s $32.7 billion endowment should be used as a political tool.

It was a high-profile rebuff for a movement that’s still finding its footing. But the students’ persistence since then underscores another reality: Massachusetts has emerged as a high-energy hub of the national fossil fuels divestment push.

Environmentalists, borrowing some tactics from the anti-Apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s, are pressing universities, foundations and public pension funds across the country to pull their money out of oil, gas and coal.

A Nascent Movement

So far, 10 small colleges, 22 cities and 19 foundations are among the institutions joining the divestment movement. New England — and Massachusetts, in particular — are heavily represented.

Hampshire College in Amherst is perhaps the most prominent college to divest thus far. Three Massachusetts-based foundations — the John Merck Fund, the Chorus Foundation and the Solidago Foundation — recently joined 14 others in committing to divestment.

City councils and town meetings in Amherst, Cambridge, Northampton, Provincetown and Truro have passed resolutions calling on pension managers to divest.

And in the state Legislature, Sen. Ben Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, has authored legislation that would pull the state’s $56 billion pension fund out of fossil fuels. He says it’s a matter of consistency for a state that’s investing plenty in the shift to green energy.

“It makes no sense to, on the one hand, be investing taxpayer resources in making that transition and on the other hand be investing retiree pension dollars in fossil fuels,” he says. “We are, sort of, cheering for both sides of a game.”

The fossil fuels industry does not look kindly on the divestment push.

“Proposals to divest from fossil fuels are preposterous,” says Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.

Given the returns fossil fuels can offer, he suggests divestment is financially irresponsible for money managers whose first duty is to public retirees — or university students.

There are some local concerns along those lines, too. Michael Trotsky, executive director of the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, wrote a letter to lawmakers arguing divestment would mean a “significant administrative and operational burden.”

The bill does have a trigger allowing for reinvestment in fossil fuels if returns fall more than half a percentage point below where they would have been without divestment.

And while Downing does not expect the Legislature to act on the measure in the near future, activists can claim some momentum.

The measure has the support of Treasurer Steve Grossman, who is now running for governor. And two of the Democratic candidates to replace him in the treasurer’s office — state Sen. Barry Finegold and former Brookline Selectwoman Deb Goldberg — say they support a careful divestment.

“I think the pension fund should reflect our values,” says Finegold. “And I think our values should be a clean energy future.”

Carbon Bubble?

Massachusetts is also home to prominent green investment firms like Trillium Asset Management and Green Century Funds, which just released an animated video this week aimed at everyday investors.

“You care about the planet,” a voiceover intones. “But if you’re saving for your family’s future in a mutual fund, your money is probably invested in the same fossil fuel companies that are most responsible for global warming.”

The pitch to individual and institutional investors is not just moral or political. Advocates insist that fossil fuel companies are a bad financial bet. They say the firms’ stockpiles of coal and gas, much of them still untapped, will plummet in value when regulators get serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Reports from some of the big financial houses, such as HSBC and Standard & Poor’s, have raised similar concerns. But so far, the broader market isn’t buying talk of a “carbon bubble.”

“It’s going to take a lot more than reports,” says Joe Salvatore, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “It’s going to take the imminent threat of carbon taxes or of carbon cap-and-trade schemes. At the moment, we’re just not seeing that.”

Activists pushing divestment also face a competing strategy within the environmental movement. And the nonprofit organization Ceres, based in Boston, may be its chief practitioner.

For 25 years, the organization has brought together capitalists and environmentalists in a push for a more sustainable economy. And these days, it isn’t pursuing divestment from fossil fuel companies — it’s encouraging shareholder activism instead.

Ceres has convened a group of 70 investors, including Massachusetts and California pension funds, to press fossil fuel companies to assess the financial risk of climate change regulation — and pull out of their most carbon-intensive assets.

“What they’re saying,” says Ceres President Mindy Lubber of the 70 investors, “is if we divest, we’re giving up our power to engage with these companies. They’re not saying divestment’s a bad thing. They’re saying they’re not going to do it … or they’re not going to do it right now.”

Lubber says the divestment push has been valuable in attracting attention to the fight against climate change. And she suggests a mix of tactics is the most potent approach for any social or environmental movement.

But those who favor divestment say engagement just won’t work with companies whose interests are fundamentally at odds with curbing climate change.

And ultimately, they argue, investment is a question of values.

‘From Jesus’ Mouth’

The Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, works out of the groups’s headquarters in an old red barn in Framingham.

He oversees 374 churches statewide. And he’s made climate change — and lately, divestment — a defining cause.

The work has taken him all over the country and connected him with some prominent national and international leaders. On his bookshelf: a photo with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-Apartheid activist who has embraced the fight against global warming.

In July, he successfully pushed the national church — in a biannual gathering known as the General Synod — to take the first step toward divestment; United Church of Christ would be the first national organization to pull out of fossil fuels.

“Every religion links what we do with our material being, with who we are as spiritual beings,” Antal says, sitting in his office. “For Christians, it’s pretty simple: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ That’s, you know, coming from Jesus’ mouth.”

Divestment would take some time, if it ultimately goes through. It would involve a tiny amount of money measured against the industry’s market value. And if the United Church of Christ sells its shares, other investors would undoubtedly buy them.

But environmental activist Bill McKibben, the national face of the divestment movement, says it’s not really about inflicting economic damage.

“We don’t think that we can bankrupt Exxon tomorrow,” he says. “But we do think we can begin the process of politically bankrupting them — making it harder for them to exercise their power in Washington and all the other capitals of the world where the fossil fuel industry is so strong.”

It’s a big climb for a small movement. But if activists get there, McKibben says, it’ll be — in no small part — the work of advocates in Massachusetts.

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