[Originally published in Civil Beat, 5/13/2015]
The University of Hawaii (UH) proudly declares on its website that it is a “land, sea and space grant institution,” one of only a handful nationwide. UH holds as its motto Maluna aʻe o nā lāhui a pau ke ola ke kanaka (above all nations is humanity). With faith in that identity, and that motto, Divest UH, a campus and community coalition, looks to the Regents for leadership in divesting from fossil fuels. Divesting from fossil fuel companies weakens their social and political clout, including their efforts to fund climate change deniers. It also creates an environment for legislators to pass laws limiting the carbon pollution that is causing global warming.
“No/Minimal” Cost to Divest
The due diligence has been done. The Regents’ own Task Group recommends beginning divestment of its $66 million endowment from fossil fuel companies. Its financial advisors have confirmed that there will be “no/minimal increase” in fees to do so. Energy companies comprise 5-7% of UH’s portfolio. When divestment is complete, in three years, UH will have no more than 1% of its holdings in fossil fuels and, where feasible, will look to invest in alternative energy companies.
The separate UH Foundation endowment is worth $261.5 million. Less than 12%—under $32 million—is in “Natural Resources” and “Private Oil and Gas.” The endowment grew by more than that just in the past year. The endowments wouldn’t be losing the money, of course—just reinvesting it elsewhere. Investing in renewable energy companies will be an investment in the solution instead of the problem. Capital expenditures for fossil fuels are rising while production is falling; clean energy is doing exactly the opposite. Investors are leaving coal in droves, and even oil company stocks have not risen consistently in recent decades. They performed in the upper half of equity sectors in only half of the years between 1992-2012.
Rising CO2, ever stronger hurricanes—reminders to act now
UH divesting from fossil fuels will add to the groundswell of what is now an international movement. The goal is nothing less than the salvation of Earth as we know it. We need to preserve beaches, to prevent Category 5 hurricanes, to save the reefs and the enormous assortment of life that depends on them. Typhoons like Haiyan that wreaked havoc and cost thousands of lives in the Philippines are a grim reminder of what climate change is doing to our planet and its people. Scientists considering a new Category 6 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, and the parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere recently passing the dreaded milestone of 400, should stiffen our resolve to divest.
Divestment Good for Financial Health
At least five respected financial organizations have analyzed divestment and found that it does not weaken portfolios, and sometimes strengthens them. There’s good reason to expect future fossil fuel value to drop, due to stranded assets as people finally scramble to avoid destroying their world. The resulting Carbon Bubble has been estimated to be 20 times the size of the mortgage bubble. The bubble may have already begun to burst in the last weeks of 2014, when Chevron put its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic “on hold indefinitely,” citing “the level of economic uncertainty in the industry.”
In short, divesting now may well save money, while the costs of climate change are likely to be incalculable. In January, the state legislature began a discussion about state pension funds. Not acting now drives up the cost of responding to the damage of climate change later—and taxpayers bear the burden. Voters should be paying attention to how their legislators act—or fail to act—on this issue.
For now, the UH Regents have an opportunity to lead the way by voting to divest. Once before people said divestment would not work. The goal was to end apartheid. The Regents of the University of California expended time and effort debating whether to divest. People said it was pointless, risky, against their fiduciary duty. In 1986, the UC Regents voted to divest $1.7 billion from companies doing business with South Africa. They joined institutions worldwide in ending an unjust, discriminatory system.
Fighting the culture of fossil fuel companies
The Regents of the University of Hawaii are poised to play a similar role in contributing to the end of another deeply harmful culture: the culture of fossil fuel companies and their pursuit of profit at all costs. Divestment from companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980’s proved to be eminently not pointless, not risky, and not against fiduciary duty. Divestment from fossil fuels today will prove to be the same. It will be an act of good stewardship, entirely consistent with UH’s professed identity and one small step towards a stable planet and a saner future.