December 18, 2014

Living Green: McKibben urges Vermont to divest from fossil fuel

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By Becka Gregory

Observer staff

At the inaugural Vermont Town Hall Meeting series held at Spruce Peak Center for the Arts in Stowe earlier this month, activist and author Bill McKibben pushed for Vermonters to take action against fossil fuel businesses.

The call for action came in the form of a request for divestment, a financial strategy which involves revoking funds from particular companies or industries. Divestment was most notably used in the United States during the 1980s to increase pressure on South Africa to end apartheid.

According to 350.org, an environmental organization founded by McKibben, Vermont has invested $7.7 million of the $3.8 billion Vermont State Pension fund in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. The pension fund is comprised of public pension funds for participating municipal employees, state employees and Vermont state teachers. Managed by the Vermont Pension Investment committee, “the three pension systems diversify assets across a broad group of asset classes, which enables each portfolio to maintain stability through market cycles,” according to the Vermont state treasurer’s website.

For the ten years prior to June 30, 2012, the pension funds achieved an average return rate of 6.53 percent, compared to the average return of 6.4 percent for median public retirement plans. Investments in alternative energy such as solar or wind power have been suggested as substitutes for the funds that would be divested from fossil fuel companies. The financial return for these technologies can be slower than that of fossil fuels, but are less environmentally detrimental, McKibben said.

McKibben called the need for divestment necessary for Vermont to live up to its perception as an environmentally progressive state.

“Our image as an environmental powerhouse dates back to Kunin, but we’re not doing anything right now to deserve this accolade,” he said.

Vermont has shown environmental commitment in many ways, including the Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of providing 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050, but McKibben said it’s not enough.

“Corporations are writing the rules. They have enough power to dominate the system unless we are planning movement against them,” McKibben said.

Two bills covering divestment were introduced in Vermont last year, S.131 and H.271, and nine colleges and universities around the country, including Vermont’s Green Mountain College and Sterling College, have divested endowments from fossil fuel companies already. Seventeen foundations, including the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, committed to divesting almost $2 billion earlier this year, and many cities, counties and religious organizations have also pledged to divest money from fossil fuels.

For more information on divestment, visit www.350.org.

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