SEATTLE – Sometimes the best measure of a movement’s momentum is the reaction of its critics. When, in early October, the Australian National University (ANU) announced that it would sell its shares in seven fossil-fuel and mining companies, it triggered a chorus of criticism from the country’s conservative politicians.
These nominal champions of the free market were quick to tell the university what it should do with its money. The Treasurer of Australia, Joe Hockey, disparaged the ANU’s decision as being “removed from reality.” Others chimed in, calling it “a disgrace,” “very strange,” and “narrow-minded and irresponsible.” Never mind that the sums involved were relatively small – making up less than 2% of the university’s estimated $1 billion portfolio.
As the drive to divest from fossil fuels picks up speed, such panicky responses are becoming increasingly common. The outrage of Australia’s conservatives reminds me of the reaction I received when I testified before the US Congress in 2013 that we should “keep our coal in the ground where it belongs.” David McKinley, a Republican congressman from West Virginia, in the heart of America’s coal country, replied that my words “sent a shiver up [his] spine,” then changed the subject to the crime rate in Seattle, where I was Mayor.
Even ExxonMobil appears shaken. The company recently published a long, defensive blog post responding to what it described as a “full-throated endorsement” of fossil-fuel divestment by Mary Robinson, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for climate change. The fossil-fuel industry clearly sees the divestment movement as the political threat that it is. When enough people say no to investing in fossil-fuel production, the next step has to be keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground.