Divestment speaks

Keeping your money out of fossil fuel companies’ stock sends a message

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Patty O’Keefe (left) and Simone Childs-Walker (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Would you invest in a company whose business practices threaten the livelihood of people in poor communities around the world? How about a company whose main product is a well-known pollutant? To many people, investing in that company doesn’t sound very appealing. Yet activists say that individuals, institutions, municipalities and other groups worldwide have invested in fossil fuel companies whose practices are contributing to climate change and negatively affecting people’s lives. 

Now there is movement in the other direction. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are cropping up nationally and here in Minnesota, and women are taking a big role. 

Divestment is the opposite of investment – that is, it’s taking or keeping money out of certain funds rather than putting money in. The idea is that by withholding financial support of certain industries, investors send a message that business practices need to change. 

In Minnesota, groups such as MN350 and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light are supporting campaigns for municipalities, schools and churches to divest stock portfolios of the 200 fossil fuel companies with the most reserves worldwide. Their goal is to pressure these coal, oil and natural gas companies to stop looking for and extracting these fuels. If the companies don’t stop, the activist groups say, we risk seeing the Earth’s temperature rise to an unsafe level. 

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The movement begins

The fossil fuel divestment movement started in 2012 on college campuses and quickly spread across campuses and other institutions, including the University of Minnesota; Gustavus Adolphus, Macalester and Carleton colleges; and Bemidji State University. In March, the city of Minneapolis passed a resolution supporting divestment and banning investment in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. 

“Really, anyone that invests can divest, which is why I think there’s such a variety of institutions that have been able to be a part of the movement,” says Patty O’Keefe, MN350 fossil free divestment coordinator. “We feel that if it’s not morally right to be destroying the planet through your business practices, it’s also not right to profit off that destruction through your investment practices.” 

“Climate change is a human rights issue,” says Simone Childs-Walker, a University of Minnesota medical student working on divestment campaigns with the university and with Carleton College alumni. “Human beings’ lives are already being affected by it and will continue to be more and more affected by it.” 

The Rev. Susan Mullin concurs. She has seen people’s close ties to the land in other parts of the world and how they understand climate change as an economic issue as well as an environmental one. A pastor at Faith United Methodist Church (UMC) in St. Anthony, she is working with interfaith communities and Fossil Free UMC to raise awareness of the divestment movement among churches.


‘Social statement’

There’s risk involved in divesting from fossil fuel companies, O’Keefe acknowledges, but the question is: for whom? The companies are profitable now, but some experts say the stock is overvalued. If and when countries begin imposing more regulations, the carbon bubble could burst, O’Keefe says. Alternatives that are free of fossil fuels are performing competitively, O’Keefe says. 

“We’re doing something financial, but we’re doing it as a social statement,” Mullin adds. Emotions play a role, too, and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light’s efforts have included encouraging people to talk about why they care about changes to the planet, Mullin says. “We’ve known the facts for a long time,” Mullin says, but that hasn’t effected change. 

Instead, motivation for change comes from people’s hopes, dreams and fears, Childs-Walker says. That especially resonates with women. 

“There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of grief, there’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of fear that comes up when you actually think about what climate change means for you and your loved ones and people around the world,” Childs-Walker says. 

The women note that fossil fuel divestment is part of a broader effort to slow or reverse climate change – and a necessary one. And it is independent of the political system, which can be influenced by the fossil fuel industry. 


Women’s leadership

It’s interesting to note, the women say, that the Minnesota divestment movement is being led by more women than men, even though the stereotype is that men are more concerned with financial matters. For Mullin and Childs-Walker, their participation is driven largely by maternal instinct to protect the young. 

“My desire to nurture and protect and provide for future generations is a very strong force in my passion for working to reverse climate change,” Childs-Walker says. In addition, she sees parallels in society’s treatment of women and our treatment of the Earth. “It feels to me like what patriarchal societies have done to women for generations,” Childs-Walker says. 


Interested in championing divestment in your own life?

O’Keefe, Childs-Walker and Mullin offer several ideas:

  • Find out whether someone within your connections — for example, your faith community, city or pension fund — is working on a campaign that you can join or partner with. Coordinating strategy and sharing ideas makes campaigns more successful, O’Keefe says. 
  • Talk to a financial adviser about your personal investments. If your adviser isn’t familiar with divestment, someone else in her or his network likely is. Research and educate yourself, too. 

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