The campaign to starve fossil fuel companies of cash announced a major milestone on Tuesday, a surge past the trillion dollar mark – to $2.6 trillion, according to a new report by Arabella Advisors, a progressive consulting firm—and the addition of Leonardo DiCaprio to the list of global names and institutions that have pledged to divest.
But despite the big numbers and bold names—including the support of a Rockefeller heir—the fossil fuel divestment movement still faces big questions about its efficacy. The organizers, which include 350.org and the philanthropy Divest-Invest, admit that they’ve got few substantial answers themselves.
They don’t know how much of that $2.6 trillion was actually invested in fossil fuels in the first place. They can’t say for certain that the hundreds of organizations and individuals “committed” to divest have actually done so. Even if all that money was pulled from the market, there’s no evidence that it’s made any difference – or will make any difference—at least not in the share prices of fossil fuel companies.
And yet Tuesday’s announcement is still a promising sign, a gauge of the movement’s tremendous growth and galloping appeal not only in the U.S. but overseas. In the past year, for example, the number of institutions and individuals that have pledged to divest more than doubled from 181 and 656 to 436 and 2,040, respectively.
At the same time, the amount of money controlled by this coalition has grown more than 50-fold, from $52 billion to $2.6 trillion, and the movement has bloomed overseas, with more than 40% of the funds outside the United States, according to Arabella Advisors. That includes recent divestment pledges from Stanford University, the University of California, and Norway’s pension fund, the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.
It also includes the personal wealth and private foundation of Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of "The Wolf of Wall Street" and America’s most prominent goatee aficionado. He appeared at a press conference announcing his investment moves, but he didn’t address the crowd and when a reporter asked how much money he was actually divesting, DiCaprio smiled, waved and disappeared out a back exit.
“After looking into the growing movement to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions, I was convinced to make the pledge on behalf of myself and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation," DiCaprio said in a statement. “Now is the time to divest and invest to let our world leaders know that we, as individuals and institutions, are taking action to address climate change, and we expect them to do their part."
For the moment world leaders seem unlikely to listen to the argument of stars like DiCaprio, let alone the research of scientists like those at NASA or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fossil fuel companies themselves still spend about $600 billion a year exploring for new reserves. Governments subsidize that search with hundreds of billions of additional dollars.
This search and those subsidies are adding to carbon reserves even as scientists warn that 80% of existing reserves have to stay in the ground if we are to have any hope of keeping global warming within a relatively safe range. That’s the equivalent of $100 trillion in stranded cash, according to a recent calculation by Citigroup.
The divestment movement believes they can win by combining their financial clout with a social message, much as past divestment campaigns succeeded in demonizing investment in tobacco, pornography, guns, and apartheid-era South Africa.
“This movement is in fact making the fossil fuel industry a global pariah,” said Ellen Dorsey, the moderator of a panel convened to discuss divestment on Tuesday. “Clearly the world is moving away from fossil fuel,” added May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org.
That’s got nothing to do with the divestment movement, according to a 2013 study by the Stranded Asset Program at the University of Oxford, perhaps the best review of the effort. It found that even if every public pension and university endowment on earth were to divest it would make a negligible difference in the business of digging for coal, oil and gas.
The real power, the researchers found, was in the movement’s ability to shame the industry. They may be able to starve it of young talent and new ideas, digging a moat between it and the wider world.
“The goal is not to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. We can’t do that with divestment alone,” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, has said. “But we can help politically bankrupt them. We can impair their ability to dominate our political life.”