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Why We Must Divest From Fossil Fuel Corporations To Help Save The Biosphere And Humanity

By Dr Gideon Polya

09 October, 2013

Divestment from fossil  fuels is an  important  way individuals, religious organizations, social organizations in general (e.g. societies, unions) , institutions (e.g. universities), superannuation funds,  pension funds, companies and indeed local, state and federal governments can take concrete action against man-made climate change that is threatening  the Biosphere and Humanity. We are all morally obliged to divest  from companies involved in fossil fuel exploitation and which are hell-bent on destroying  the planet for short-term private profit.

The World is facing a climate emergency due to global warming from man-derived greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is now 400 parts per million (ppm) and increasing at 2.4 ppm per year. Until recently the atmospheric CO2 concentration was in the range of 180-300 ppm for the last 800,000 years, fluctuations in this range giving rise to successive glacial and inter-glacial periods that imposed selection pressures upon evolving humanity. The average surface temperature is now +0.8C above that in 1900 and this has already been associated with major climate, weather and biological disruptions. Indeed the species extinction rate is now 100-1,000 times greater than normal [1].

Both Dr James Lovelock FRS (Gaia hypothesis and atmospheric  gas measurements ) and Professor Kevin Anderson ( Deputy Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK) have recently estimated that only about 0.5 billion people will survive this century due to unaddressed, man-made global warming. Noting that the world population is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050 (UN Population Division) , these estimates translate to a Climate Genocide involving deaths of 10 billion people this century, this including roughly twice the present population of particular mainly non-European groups, specifically 6 billion under-5 year old infants, 3 billion Muslims in a terminal Muslim Holocaust, 2 billion Indians, 1.3 billion non-Arab Africans, 0.5 billion Bengalis, 0.3 billion Pakistanis and 0.3 billion Bangladeshis [2].

Collective, national responsibility for this already commenced Climate Genocide is in direct proportion to per capita national pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases (GHGs). Indeed, fundamental to any international agreement on national rights to pollute our common atmosphere and oceans should be the belief that “all men are created equal”. However reality is otherwise: “annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution” in units of “tonnes CO 2 -equivalent per person per year” (2005-2008 data) is 0.9 (Bangladesh), 0.9 (Pakistan), 2.2 (India), less than 3 (many African and Island countries), 3.2 (the Developing World), 5.5 (China), 6.7 (the World), 11 (Europe), 16 (the Developed World), 27 (the US) and 30 (Australia; or 74 if Australia's huge Exported CO 2 pollution is included) [2].

Basically we know what the problem is (man-made GHG pollution) and how to solve it. Fundamentally, as enunciated by 300.org, we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration to about 300 ppm for a safe planet for all peoples and all species [3].

To achieve 300 ppm CO2 we must achieve the following [4]:

1. Change of societal philosophy to one of scientific risk management and biological sustainability with complete cessation of species extinctions and zero tolerance for lying.

2. Urgent reduction of atmospheric CO 2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists.

3. Rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide and hydro options that are currently roughly the same market price as coal burning-based power) and to energy efficiency, public transport, needs-based production, re-afforestation and return of carbon as biochar to soils and underground storage coupled with correspondingly rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, methanogenic livestock production and population growth.

We understand the problem and have the technological solutions – the impending catastrophe simply does not have to happen. Are we going to be able to overcome the current corporate lobbying-determined political stasis and act before it is too late for Humanity and the Biosphere? Is it too late to save the Biosphere? Are we all doomed?

Professor  Jorgen Randers (professor at the Norwegian Business School BI and co-author of “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, the Report to the Club of Rome,  its two sequels and author  of “ 2052 - A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” ): “I am a climate pessimist. I believe (regrettably) that humanity will not meet the climate challenge with sufficient strength to save our grandchildren from living in a climate-damaged world. Humanity (regrettably) will not make what sacrifice is necessary today in order to ensure a better life for our ancestors forty years hence. The reason is that we are narrowly focused on maximum well-being in the short term. This short-termism is reflected in the systems of governance that we have chosen to dominate our lives: Both democracy and capitalism place more emphasis on costs today that on benefits forty years in the future… In sum, I don't believe that the free market, regulation, political leadership, or public education will solve the climate problem in time. Capitalism is unable to handle this long term challenge, and democratic society is unwilling to modify the market. In my view, we need something stronger, something that can counter the root problem: Man's short-term nature. His tendency to disregard the long term consequences of current action.  What can be done? Can democratic society be modified to solve the climate challenge? Eco-dictatorship may be to go too far. But something is needed to temper the short-termism of the nation state, probably something at the supranational level. For example a global central bank for climate gas emissions, introduced through democratic means – like the normal central banks. This is easier said than done. But still necessary.  Otherwise, I predict, it will be the Chinese who solve the global climate challenge - singlehandedly. Through a sequence of 5-year plans established with a clear long term vision, and executed without asking regular support from the Chinese. They are already well on the way, for the benefit of our grandchildren” [5, 6].

Many decent, informed, thoughtful individuals are realistically pessimistic about what can be done in a timely fashion to prevent climate disaster.  Thus we try to live sustainably, grow vegetables, don't use air conditioners, install solar heating and solar PV on our roofs, patronize public transport and vote for pro-environment  parties like the Greens and the Socialists [7].  However the political stasis is daunting.  Thus Australia, like Canada and the US, has already used up its “fair share” of the world's terminal greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution budget of 600 Gt CO2 that must not be exceeded between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050 if we are to have a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2C temperature rise.  However Australia , like Canada and the US , is committed to Business As Usual (BAU) and world–leading annual per capita GHG pollution [8, 9, 10].  

Further, Australia , Canada and the US have become Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies and Corporatocracies in which Big Money  trumps expert scientific opinion and effectively buys people, politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality and political power. Thus in the recent Australian Federal elections the pro-peace, pro-science,  pro-equity and pro-environment Greens gained about 9% of the vote while the pro-war,  anti-science, anti-equity and anti-environment Labor and Coalition major parties  gained about 33% and 45%, respectively, of the vote.  Rhetoric aside, the Australian Liberal Party – National Party Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition have the same climate change inaction policies of  a derisory “5% off 2000 GHG pollution by 2020” coupled with unlimited, huge coal, gas and iron ore exports that will see a climate criminal Australia exceed the whole world's terminal GHG pollution budget by a factor of three [8].  Similarly, political rhetoric aside,   Canada and the US are both also governed by effective climate change denialists regimes committed to effective climate change inaction policies.

The Carbon Tracker initiative is the first project of Investor Watch, a non-profit company established by its directors to align the capital markets with efforts to tackle climate change. According  to Carbon Tracker: “ Between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable' if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C. The total coal, oil and gas reserves listed on the world's stock exchanges equals 762 GtCO 2 – approximately a quarter of the world's total reserves [ 2,795 Gt CO2]. If you apply the same proportion to the global carbon budgets to have an 80% chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, their allocation of the carbon budget is between 125 GtCO 2 and 225 GtCO 2 , [16.4% - 29.5% of listed reserves] illustrating the scale of ‘unburnable carbon'” [11].

Leading climate change economist Professor Lord Nicholas Stern: “ Smart investors can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision. The report raises serious questions as to the ability of the financial system to act on industry-wide long term risk, since currently the only measure of risk is performance against industry benchmarks.” [11].

Leading US environmentalist Bill McKibben has come to the same conclusion and has drawn the analogy between the divestment in fossil fuels with  the divestment campaign against Apartheid in South Africa : “Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa . It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. "The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century," as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, "but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure," especially from "the divestment movement of the 1980s" [12]. One notes that while the anti-Apartheid divestment campaign was about getting one-man-one-vote and equal rights for all the citizens of just one country, South Africa,  the fossil fuel divestment campaign  is about saving the planet, saving the Biosphere, and  saving all of Humanity.  

The case for divestment in fossil fuels is compelling.  While the direct effects of divestment by morally-sensible groups such as churches and universities may be limited, the indirect effects of stigmatisation will  be vastly more substantial. Thus a key recent report from the University of Oxford : “The outcome of the stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison” [13, 14].

Something practical that disempowered climate change activists can do is to urge and apply a policy of divesting from fossil fuels.  Inspired by the pro-Planet 350.org,  Fossil Free campaigns for divesting in fossil fuel companies  have been launched in the leading annual per capita GHG polluting countries the US ,   Canada and Australia .  The website  “Divest from fossil fuels” [15] details the  divestment successes so far, noting  that the divestment campaign has attracted 41 institutions since 2010 [14]. Below  is a roll of honor of numerous organizations that have voted to divest  from fossil fuel companies:

US church groups that have voted to divest from fossil fuels include First Parish in Cambridge Unitarian Universalist, Massachusetts ; Unitarian Universalist South Church , Portsmouth , New Hampshire ; First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah; First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee; and more than 100 Evangelical Lutheran churches in Oregon .

US colleges that have voted to divest from fossil fuels include Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vermont; Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, Vermont; and College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine.

US cities that have voted to divest from fossil fuels include Madison , Wisconsin , Bayfield , Wisconsin ;   Ithaca , New York ; Boulder , Colorado ; State College , Pennsylvania ;   Eugene , Oregon ; Richmond , California ; Berkeley , California ;   San Francisco , California ; and Santa Monica , California .

New Zealand churches that have voted to divest from fossil fuels include the Anglican dioceses of Auckland , Waiapu, Wellington , Dunedin , and Waikato and Taranaki.

Australian churches that have voted to divest from fossil fuels include the Melbourne Unitarian Church and the  NSW and ACT branches of the Uniting Church of Australia .

In Australia the Greens have argued that   Australia 's Future Fund should divest from fossil fuels: “Investing in coal, oil and gas companies is risky business. Either their vast carbon reserves are left responsibly in the ground or they are burned, fuelling catastrophic global warming.  Our Future Fund, Australian investment fund for the future, should not be backing risky investment decisions with taxpayers' money” [16].


The world's terminal  GHG pollution budget, that must not be exceeded if  we are to have a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2C temperature rise, is 600 Gt CO2 [1].  The fossil fuel industry intends to exploit its stock exchange-listed reserves of 762 GtCO 2 that is approximately a quarter of the world's total reserves of  2,795 Gt CO2 on combustion. However historical GHG pollution since the start of the Industrial  Revolution has now brought  us to the point  at which an estimated 50 Gt of methane (CH4) is predicted to be released from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf in coming decades [17, 18], GHG pollution equivalent 5,250 Gt CO2-equivalent, 9 times greater than the world's terminal GHG pollution budget.. The Biosphere and thence Humanity are doomed unless this gigantic methane release can be prevented [18]. Accordingly , we must urgently cease fossil fuel exploitation.  

There are many things climate activists can do to help save the planet  [19] but perhaps the most important at this time is to hold the greenhouse gas polluters accountable. Sensible, science-informed, humane  people must apply and urge the policy of divestment from fossil fuel companies. In so doing they will not just be helping to save the planet and a decent future  for our children and grandchildren, at a mundane level they will also be securing the value of their investment assets,   their superannuation funds and their pension funds.  


[1]. Dr Gideon Polya ,“2011 Climate change course”: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/2011-climate-change-course .

[2]. “Climate Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/climategenocide/ .

[3]. 300.org: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/ .

[4]. “Climate crisis facts and required actions”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: https://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/climate-crisis-facts-required-actions

[5].  Jorgen Randers, “Systematic short-termism:  Climate, capitalism and democracy”, Climate Code red, 2012: http://www.climatecodered.org/2012/11/systematic-short-termism-climate.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ClimateCodeRed+%28climate+code+red%29

[6]. "Are we doomed?”: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/are-we-doomed .

[7]. Gideon Polya , “Vote 1 Socialist or Green to save Humanity and Planet”,  Countercurrents, 09 October, 2011: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya091011.htm .

[8]. Gideon Polya, “ Australia 's Huge Coal, Gas & Iron Ore Exports Threaten Planet”, Countercurrents, 15 May 2012: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya150512.htm .

[9]. Gideon Polya, “ Global Climate Injustice: Massive European Carbon Debt Versus South Asian Carbon Credit”,  Countercurrents, 29 September, 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya290913.htm .

[10]. “Carbon debt, carbon credit”: https://sites.google.com/site/carbondebtcarboncredit/ .

[11]. The Carbon Tracker, “Wasted capital, Unburnable carbon 2013: wasted capital and stranded assets”: http://www.carbontracker.org/wastedcapital .

[12]. Bill McKibben, “Global warming's terrifying new math”, Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719 .

[13]. Atif Ansar, Ben Caldecot and James Tilbury, “” Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment means for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?”, Smith School for Enterprise rise and the Environment, University of Oxford , 81 pages, 2013: http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/research/stranded-assets/SAP-divestment-report-final.pdf .

[14]. Damien Carrington, “Campaign against fossil fiuels growing, says study. Investors being persuaded to take their money out of fossil fuel sector, according to University of Oxford study”, Guardian, 8 )ct0ber 2013: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/08/campaign-against-fossil-fuel-growing .

[15]. “Divest from fossil fuels” : https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/divest-from-fossil-fuels .

[16]. The Greens, “Future Fund out of coal”: http://greens.org.au/future-fund-out-coal .

[17]. Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams, “Vast costs of Arctic change”, Nature, 499, 25 July 2013: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v499/n7459/pdf/499401a.pdf  and http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v499/n7459/full/499401a.html .

[18]. Scroll down to Wadhams in “Are we doomed?”: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/are-we-doomed .

[19]. Gideon Polya, "100 ideas for climate change activists trying to save the Biosphere and Humanity", Countercurrents, 10 August 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya100813.htm .

Dr Gideon Polya has been teaching science students at a major Australian university for 4 decades. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com/ ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s1445960.htm ) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/4047-the-plight-of-the-palestinians.html ). He has published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com/ ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/social-economic-history/listen-the-bengal-famine ). When words fail one can say it in pictures - for images of Gideon Polya's huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: http://sites.google.com/site/artforpeaceplanetmotherchild/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/gideonpolya/ .



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