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Making the choice to divest from fossil fuels

By
Beth Swanson
May 6, 2019
5 min read
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2012: School shootings

In 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting changed everything. Across the country, and at home in Washington state, we all hugged our kids a little closer. The next week our first-grader learned how to hide, silent in her classroom. After that first active shooter drill, a teacher in our district wrote an update. She loved the kids in her class, she said, and she would protect them. She would shield them. As a parent, you want a teacher who loves her class so much that she is willing to take a literal bullet for a child. As a parent, it’s horrifying to know she might need to.

Letters to my congressman led nowhere, but I needed to do something–anything. I decided that I would keep my money away from companies that manufactured guns. I researched boycotts and tried to determine if our money was invested in weapons stocks. It felt like an act of defiance, a small slap of change in the face of a terrible act. It felt like I was doing something. Or trying to, anyway.



The problem, especially in 2012, was that divesting from weapons stocks–or from any one industry–as an individual was challenging. At the time, most asset managers claimed that it wasn’t possible to remove entire categories of stocks from index funds. Despite earlier reports arguing that socially responsible investing met both the legal and moral definition of fiduciary responsibility, financial advisors were cautious to relinquish control. Most weren’t specialized enough to know how to help a single person divest. Large employers offered limited options for their 401ks, based on the investments of the entire group, and they changed and rebalanced over the years–which meant that previously ousted companies could reappear. And don’t forget that the larger divestment movement was just ramping up, with the loudest conversations focusing on climate investing, not weapons.

I did what I could. Over time, I rolled our college funds to a company that advertised values-based investing. I’d keep our children’s education out of the hands of the gun companies in the hope that all children in the United States would make it to college alive. It was a start.

2014: Washington mudslides

In 2014, a wall of mud swept down a hillside in Western Washington, destroying 49 homes. The area had seen mudslides before, but an unusually wet March had made the land more unstable. It devastated a community. 43 people died. The shockwaves rippled through the state. Many miles away, our school district held fundraisers and sent cards. I found myself trying to reassure my nine-year-old, telling him that no, all the houses on steep hills wouldn’t slide away.

They might, he said, because climate change will make it rain more, and people will have to move if their houses slip. Remember the videos our friends sent during Superstorm Sandy, he said? I did remember. Their building had flooded, and the West Side Highway looked like one of those surf riders, with torrents of water crashing down the street. People will have to move if their houses slide away or buildings are underwater, my son said. While he didn’t have the terms yet, and we’d never discussed it, my kid inherently understood climate migration and knew he was watching it unfold.

The concrete actions we’ve taken with the kids since 2014–reusable bags and local clean-ups, banking with a credit union and even an 18-month trial of an electric car–are feel-good steps that they can see. But they don’t address the corporations that profit from fossil fuels, and reusable bags alone won’t slow climate change. After the mudslide and the conversation with my son, I looked at divestment again, this time with an eye toward fossil fuels.

The movement to divest from fossil fuels grew quickly, supported by college students, environmental groups, business leaders, and clergy. Websites like divestinvest.org, Vanguard’s holdings search and 350.org made it easier to learn if we held stock in corporations that supported the use of fossil fuels. Divesting as an individual remained nearly impossible, but change was on the horizon.

2018: Another school shooting



In 2018, Parkland changed everything, again. The actions of the Parkland teens shaped the political landscape and forced the financial professionals to act as well. Alongside the March for Our Lives came #divestforourlives. Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling AR-15s as REI stopped buying products from Vista Outdoors. Two months later, Vista announced that it was exiting the firearms market (that hasn’t happened quite yet).

Financial managers and retailers started paying more attention, making progress I could only dream about in 2012. Bloomberg published opinion pieces suggesting University groups and teachers ask for gun-free funds, arguing that true power lies in groups divesting based on their values. The argument that it wasn’t practical to have funds without guns lost ground as people demanded change, and BlackRock started looking at funds that omit gun manufacturers.

During the same time, groups pushing for climate divestment continued to make gains. In 2018, the 1,000th group divested from fossil fuels, representing trillions of dollars in lost investment. And the science on climate change has only gotten stronger Now, reports of climate migration are common, just like my son predicted five years ago. Climate change has contributed to migration in both Central America and Syria and resettlement is beginning in communities in Alaska and Louisiana. New York has a detailed infrastructure plan, designed to reclaim land from the East River to create a buffer zone for flooding.

2018 is also the year I decided to look beyond divestment and be more proactive in how I invested my money, and I wasn’t alone. According to the 2018 US SIF Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, $12 Trillion was invested in SRI assets. That’s a 38% increase over the previous two years and represents one out of every four dollars in the market.

2019: Better choices are available

This year, I started an investment portfolio for each child, containing only SRI funds. Someday, when they use that money to buy a house, pay for their own child’s education, or drive the social change they want to see, they’ll do it knowing I tried to support the best possible future for them.

There is power in how we choose to use our money, even in small amounts. In the beginning, socially responsible investing felt defiant. It was something I could talk about when my kids asked, “How are you helping the world?” Now, supported by millions, it feels like driving change and making history.

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