Bill McKibben, the famous American environmentalist, is traveling across Europe with one clear goal, turning oil companies into energy companies. “Oil companies have 5 times more reserves than is safe to burn. Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below a temperature rise of two degrees, the commonly agreed ‘safe’ maximum. It’s scary to know that the proven oil, gas and coal reserves of companies are 2795 gigaton,” McKibben explains.
Nature doesn’t negotiate
“Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour,” Bill McKibben wrote in his famous article for Rolling Stone.
The effects of a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees will be severe. Kumi Naidoo, CEO of Greenpeace International: “Politicians think that everything is negotiable, but that’s not how it works. Nature doesn’t negotiate. It is time to take action.” Bill McKibben agrees and motivates the students that gathered at the ‘Climate for Change’ event at the VU University in Amsterdam: “We are not going to ‘win’ in the long run, there simply isn’t enough time for a long run. We only got time in the short run.”
Reagan overruled by Congress
The students feel the same urgency, but many of them have the same question. “What can I do? Should I become a vegan, sell my car, stop consuming, or is there something else that I can contribute?” Bill McKibben sees a more effective way: convince pension funds and large institutions like universities to divest – the reduction of assets for financial, ethical, or political objectives – from oil companies. “Ask the management of your university to divest in oil companies.”
Utrecht University has an annual operating budget of around €750 million, the University of Copenhagen more than €1 billion. “Divestment actions brought the apartheid regime in South Africa down, now it is time to do the same to oil companies.” The USA realized it in its federal legislation in 1986. “It was one of the very few times that the American congress overruled President Reagan and demanded divestments”, McKibben explained.
The anti-apartheid divestments were initiated at Stanford University and Michigan State University in 1977. By 1984, 53 educational institutions were divesting and in 1988 the number rose to 155. “Why couldn’t this be repeated in Europe in the 2010’s? The stakes were high during apartheid, but now they are even higher. Climate change affects everybody, everywhere.” Next to universities like Cornell, Oxford and NYU, four Dutch higher education institutes already have a ‘Fossil Free Team’, the VU University, the University of Amsterdam, Leiden University and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. McKibben expects many more to join the initiative soon.