Bill McKibben Says Rutgers Divesting From Fossil Fuels Is a “Big Deal”

Rutgers University has voted to begin divesting from fossil fuels, following a campaign by the student-organized Endowment Justice Collective that grew out of the Global Climate Strike in 2019. The organizing efforts led to a referendum vote in 2020 in which 90% of students supported divestment. About 5% of Rutgers’s $1.6 billion endowment is invested in fossil fuels, and under the terms of the agreement, it will now cease new fossil fuel investment and divest from passive index funds with fossil fuel investments. It said it also plans to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency and that the school’s investment office will annually report on divestment progress. Author, environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben says the Rutgers divestment decision is “a big deal,” especially as it happened at one of the oldest universities in the United States. “It’s one more sign of just how much the zeitgeist has shifted,” he says.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

A coalition of students and professors are celebrating after Rutgers University, the largest state university system in New Jersey, voted Tuesday to begin to divest from fossil fuels. The vote by the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees followed a campaign by the Endowment Justice Collective that grew out of the Global Climate Strike in 2019 and led to a referendum vote in 2020 in which 90% of students supported divestment. About 5% of Rutgers’ $1.6 billion endowment is invested in fossil fuels.

The agreement means the school will now cease new fossil fuel investment and divest from passive index funds with fossil fuel investments. Rutgers said it also plans to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the school’s investment office will annually report on divestment progress.

Rutgers University professor Naomi Klein tweeted in response to the news, quote, “I love teaching at #Rutgers University and now I’m extra proud to be part of this amazing community: after years of student and faculty activism, Rutgers is finally divesting from fossil fuels!” she said.

Rutgers’ announcement comes shortly after the University of Southern California promised in February to divest from fossil fuels.

For more, we go to Bill McKibben, author, educator, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org. His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His latest climate newsletter for The New Yorker is titled “The Shift to Renewable Energy Can Give More Power to the People.”

Bill, you call the Rutgers news a big, big deal. Lay out why.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, congratulations to your co-host, Mr. González, the, I believe, Heffner professor of communications at the newly divested Rutgers University.

It is a big deal, because, look, this is one of the oldest universities in the country, one of the nine, I think, universities founded before the Revolution. It has a huge history. This is where Paul Robeson, of all people, went to school. And it’s the most important university in one of the biggest states in America. It’s one more sign of just how much the zeitgeist has shifted.

We’re now at the point that this divestment campaign, which Naomi and I kind of helped launch 10 years ago this year, has become the biggest anti-corporate campaign of its kind in history. We’re at about $15 trillion now in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel. And they run the gamut from tiny religious orders and little schools out in the woods to Oxford and Cambridge. And now Rutgers, right in the middle of it, particularly significant, I think, because, of course, Standard Oil of New Jersey was one of the first big global players in the fossil fuel business, and it’s very good to see this signal being sent. Hopefully, it’s a signal that will be heard, among other things, in the office of New Jersey Governor Murphy, because New Jersey should be getting set to follow New York state in divesting its massive employee pension fund from fossil fuel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, I wanted to ask you — one of the dirty secrets of the fossil fuel industry, of course, that makes it more enticing for some of these institutions to divest, is the decline of the industry from a financial perspective. Could you talk about that, as well?

BILL McKIBBEN: When we started this divestment campaign, Exxon was still the biggest company in the world. Juan, it’s not even the biggest energy company in the world anymore. It was passed in market capitalization last autumn by a renewable energy company based out of Florida. So, there are big changes underfoot.

That does not mean that the power of the oil industry has gone away. They continue to do everything they can to slow down and delay progress. They know, I think, at this point, that the future is going to be built on sun and wind and renewable energy. But their desire is to drag out that transition as long as possible to maintain their business model for another couple of decades, even though the scientists are very clear that if we let that happen, we will break the planet’s climate system.

We had a new — they had a study yesterday showing that, essentially, the tropical parts of the world will be largely uninhabitable if we’re unable to keep temperature increase to something like 1.5 degrees Celsius. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told us that to meet that target, we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. So, our work is cut out for us. We’ve seen, finally, some beginnings from Washington in the last few weeks, and thank heaven for it, but we need an extraordinary amount of work over the next decade.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of the movements on the campuses that have developed, of students and faculties and even community organizations, pressuring these universities, could you talk about the importance of these movements and maintaining them?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, first of all, one of the interesting things about this Rutgers thing, and many other universities, is the battles took seven or eight years. And that means that it was a couple of generations of students. You know, administrations kind of count on the idea that four years from now everybody’s gone, and they’ll have moved on and forgotten. But kids did a great job of recruiting the next generation. They also reached up to faculty. The American Association of University Professors played a big role in making sure that Rutgers faculty was onside here.

And there’s been, over that 10 years, this steady kind of coalescing of the environmental movement and the justice movements into the same thing, because we now are completely clear, I think, that the people who are hit first and hardest by fossil fuel and by climate change are the ones who have done the least to cause these problems.

You know, there was a new study about three weeks ago, really one of the most important things that’s come out in a long time. And what it showed was that — forget climate change — simply the deaths from particulates linked to fossil fuel combustion now kill almost 9 million people around the world. That’s about one in five people who die on our planet. It’s more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. And none of it’s needed, because now we know how to take advantage of the large flame that the good Lord put 93 million miles away. We know how to use that in order to generate the power that we need. So that’s what we should be doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Bill McKibben, Deb Haaland is about to be voted on by the full Senate. She would become the first Native American cabinet member in history, also very significant on the issue of fossil fuels. Your final thoughts?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, Deb Haaland is a great hero. It will be wonderful to have her in that job, because she comes from New Mexico, so she understands the importance of oil and gas revenues and the need to replace them as we move forward in this transition. But just the symbolism of it, Amy, couldn’t be better. I mean, here’s a descendant, a first Native American cabinet member, and she’ll have control over one-fifth of the acreage across the country that was taken from her people over these last hundreds of years. It’s a signal moment, one of many signal moments in this new administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, author, educator, environmentalist, co-founder of 350.org, thanks so much for joining us.

That does it for the show. Happy Birthday, Adriano Contreras! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.