Philadelphia’s leaders said all the right things when Hurricane Ida’s remnants left us submerged, promising they understood that the storm was painful proof that our city is not safe from the climate crisis.
But some of our most important and wealthiest institutions aren’t putting their money where their mouth is.
The city’s pension fund, the University of Pennsylvania, and the William Penn Foundation collectively have about $24 billion invested in the markets. But they continue to invest big chunks of that money in fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Chevron, companies who are both the principal drivers of the climate crisis and the chief impediments to solutions.
These community institutions must divest from fossil fuels and invest in a green economic future. It’s not just the right thing for them to do, it’s the smart thing.
The now-international movement for fossil fuel divestment began about 10 years ago with a group of students at Swarthmore. They wanted to break the stranglehold that the big oil, coal and gas companies had on the political process. So they began to pressure their university to remove all investment in fossil fuel corporations from their endowment. They knew that a public divestment announcement would brand these fossil fuel companies with a scarlet letter. As more institutions declared these companies morally toxic, their political power would weaken.
In the decade since, the movement has exploded, spreading from colleges to target charities, nonprofits, governments, financial institutions, and corporations. It has proven effective at both raising the cost of capital for these companies and reducing their political power. In 2020, for the first time, a majority of the Democratic field for president pledged to refuse all campaign donations tied to fossil fuels.
According to 350.org, a climate justice organization which supports the divestment movement, over 1,200 organizations have now committed to divesting over $14 trillion in assets. The movement notched a huge win earlier this month when Harvard, the world’s richest university, finally agreed to fully divest from fossil fuels after years of student and alumni pressure.
Clear evidence has also emerged that it’s a smart financial decision too, because the inevitable switch to more renewable energy will lead to a collapse in value for fossil fuel companies. The leaders of the world’s largest investment firm, BlackRock — not exactly a bunch of tree huggers — concluded in a recent study that divesting institutions “experienced no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, they found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” Divestment is profitable.
So if you’re an institution that exists to care for our community in some way, divestment from fossil fuels is both a moral and fiduciary responsibility. But while the city, university and foundation have all begun to make climate considerations a part of their investment strategy, none has yet agreed to divest.
The City of Philadelphia pension fund has $6.4 billion parked in the markets. The nine-member Board of Pensions and Retirement, under pressure from City Council, voted earlier this year to add so-called “environmental, social, and governance” language to their investment plan.
But the language doesn’t commit the board to taking any real action, and Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the only elected member of the board, sounded skeptical when I asked. Her statement said, “The Board’s investment decisions should reflect the values of the city,” but that they have to balance “the city’s values with the Board’s fiduciary responsibility to the health of the fund.” A confusing answer given the evidence that divestment is profitable and that both New York and Pittsburgh pension funds, to name just two, have already done it.
Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania has faced an aggressive and creative campaign from the Fossil Free Penn student movement for years. The university has slowly given ground, first agreeing to stop investments from its $14.9 billion endowment in the worst fossil companies, and recently announcing a plan to reduce “net greenhouse gas emissions from Penn’s endowment investments to zero by 2050.”
Students slammed the plan as “disingenuous and ineffective” because it allows the university to continue financially supporting fossil fuel companies for decades more, at a time when scientists say transformative change is needed in just the next seven years.
The William Penn Foundation, which has $2.7 billion in assets, is perhaps the most perplexing, given that part of its stated mission is to “ensure a sustainable environment,” and the foundation has given generously to that work for years.
But when I asked about divestment, spokeswoman Rebecca Morley said only, “When we consider new investment managers, their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices are important to us, and we evaluate those along with traditional risk management metrics. We continue to actively assess how ESG best practices can apply to our portfolio.” Meanwhile, other charities have found a way to divest, including the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and at least 170 others.
These are big decisions and the hesitancy of some of these organizations to divest is understandable. But it is no longer permissible. As Ida made clear, climate change is here, and it is now. It’s time for these important pillars of our community to put some of their real muscle — their money — behind their promises.
Jonathan Lipman is a strategy and communications consultant for progressive organizations and nonprofits, including the divestment movement. He lives in South Philadelphia.