Fighting global warming with strategy of divestment/reinvestment.


Credit: Amanda Brown

R. William Potter

Every few decades, an issue of overwhelming moral importance emerges and compels us all to take a stand. In the 1960s it was the civil rights movement, later embracing and embraced by the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

In the 1970s and ‘80s, alongside the rise of feminism, came the environmental movement as a bipartisan priority to reverse the literal tide of pollution. Remember when Republicans were as “green” as Democrats? Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. Now executive orders are undoing 40 years of environmental progress.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was the anti-apartheid movement that ushered in a powerful new strategy for combating an unforgivable moral wrong. This was the international movement to divest from companies doing business in or with South Africa until this hyper-racist apartheid regime was dismantled.

In August 1985, New Jersey became the first state to sign on to the divestment movement when Gov. Tom Kean, a much admired progressive Republican, endorsed legislation mandating a four-year phasing out of state pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa.

Fast-forward to 2017: We have a president and political party controlling both houses of Congress and aggressively reversing every Obama era initiative intended to comply with the Paris Climate Accords that were intended to restrain, if not reverse, the global scourge of human-induced climate change. 

According to a mountain of evidence-based studies backed by more than 90 percent of climate scientists, the Earth’s temperature rose an average of 1.4 degrees over the past century, which may not sound like a lot but consider where the trend is going. Scientists tell us that if we continue to pump out the same quantities of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the planet will heat up by an additional 2 degrees to 11.5 degrees.

If that happens by the end of this century, climatologists are warning us that much of the only planet we will ever have will be too hot to support human life.

So what can we do to reverse this lemming-like march toward climate suicide?

For starters, climate-denier officeholders must hear from constituents, which is happening in town hall meetings and in mass marches. On April 22 “science marches” in Washington and cities across the country, including Trenton, will call upon our representatives to address the global warming crisis.

A week later on April 29 comes another even more massive “People’s Climate March” on Washington “to protest President Trump’s agenda of attacking climate action and promoting fossil fuel development,” according to “Inside Climate News,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning Internet news service.

Next, we must promote candidates at every level, from school boards to the presidency, who will pledge decisive action not in some distant future, but now. Among the leading Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey, every one — former Wall Street executive Phil Murphy, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, and state Sen. Ray Lesniak — has railed against climate deniers and promised to advance a clean-energy agenda

And each of us has a vital role to play. That is the beauty of a divestment/reinvestment strategy. Divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy. Baby boomers heading toward retirement can scour their portfolios for any sign of fossil-fuel stock. They can ask their churches, synagogues, and mosques to join the divest/reinvest campaign.

But will divestment lower rates of return, yielding less money for that rainy day or Caribbean cruise? Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence that a divest/reinvest strategy does not hurt the bottom line; in fact, it may help it. Recently, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — inheritors of Standard Oil profits — voted to divest. The California public employees pension fund is pulling out. According to some reports, upward of $5 trillion of fossil-fuel shares are pledged worldwide for divestment.

So, you and I have no excuse for not doing our share to save the planet. It’s the only one we’ll ever have or leave to our children and grandchildren.

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.