City Hall Takes Its Time With Divestment Proposal

By Miles Maguire

Divestment is a word with an ominous ring to it. It sounds so extreme — the idea of grabbing your money and going home, cutting your ties with some other party even if it ends up costing you more than it costs the one you are divesting from.

That’s why divestment campaigns most often start out as long-shot propositions, ideas that are easy to deride and dismiss as so far out of the mainstream that there really is no need to bring the topic up in polite company.

Divestment seems like a completely outlandish concept — until it doesn’t. Think about those bleeding-heart human rights activists who had the nerve to think that they could bring down the racist government of South Africa by cutting off economic ties, a really silly notion — until apartheid ended.

Then there were those health nuts who thought they could break America’s nicotine habit by pulling money out of tobacco stocks. It was another improbable campaign, and yet it ended up drawing $5 billion out of the industry and helping to, well, break America’s nicotine habit.

These two examples are from a recent Oxford University study that assessed the implications of a divestment campaign targeting the fossil fuels industry. The campaign, intended to blunt the effects of climate change, started in 2010 and has been gaining momentum. It has spread to hundreds of places, including universities such as UW Oshkosh.

The success of the campaign has been modest so far, which is not surprising since divestment efforts historically have started slowly. But already about 20 cities and counties have committed to divesting from the 200 or so companies that have the largest reserves of oil, gas and coal.

One of the cities that hasn’t been moving rapidly on the issue, however, is Oshkosh.

On Oct. 7, the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) voted unanimously to recommend that the City immediately stop making any new investments in fossil fuel companies and over the course of five years dispose of any stocks or bonds issued by the industry.

More than a month later, City Manager Mark Rohloff included a copy of the resolution in his weekly newsletter. But he warned that implementing such a shift could be highly problematic. “This is a sweeping policy that will have significant implications for the city,” he wrote.

Instead of putting the resolution on the Common Council’s agenda, he opted just to pass along the information.

The response from council members was, to say the least, underwhelming. Actually that would be to say the most about the response, which was precisely nothing.

“I can’t tell you whether there is agreement or disagreement or apathy. I have no idea,” Rohloff said in mid-January. “I got literally no response” to the newsletter item about the divestment proposal.
A reporter’s call to the chairwoman of the SAB, Margy Davey, seems to have gotten the ball rolling again, and Rohloff was planning to put the resolution on the council’s late January agenda as a discussion item.

“Just because some people … choose to say that there is no climate change doesn’t mean there is no climate change and we don’t have to act on it now,” Davey said. “All I want is for my kids and grandkids to grow up in a world that is still here.”

For political leaders, climate change presents an interesting challenge. A solid majority of Americans say that they believe climate change is happening, but the issue remains surprisingly contentious.

Warnings about a warming planet are often seen as emanating from a liberal concentration of university- and government-sponsored scientists who put too much emphasis on theoretical models, but this view is misleading. Military leaders, who can scarcely be described as left leaning or unpragmatic, have identified global warning as a top national security threat.

Researchers from Yale and George Mason universities reported in January that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that global warming is happening. But there are some interesting wrinkles to their findings.
Almost half of Americans believe that climate change is the result of human activity, but many fewer, only about 25 percent, realize that there is a strong scientific consensus that this is the case.

If the City were to adopt a divestment policy, Rohloff said, one alternative would be to look for a socially responsible investment pool to park its cash. He estimated that it would probably take five years to implement a policy change.

The strongest argument against divestment is that it doesn’t work, that there are always investors looking for high returns who will put their money into any industry that can throw off cash.

But the divestment debate is about raising awareness, which is where previous campaigns have had their greatest impact. “If council discussion causes members of the public to at least think about their own investments in terms of environmental sustainability as well as their own economic sustainability, that will be a win,” Davey said. 

Copyright 2014 Miles Maguire.

Miles Maguire has worked on newspapers, magazines and newsletters in a variety of cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York and Washington. He currently lives in Oshkosh.

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