Last month saw an historic, albeit altogether insufficient, step forward to avoid climate catastrophe.
At the annual global UN-backed climate change conference in Dubai, known as COP28, countries for the first time unanimously acknowledged the necessity of “transitioning away from fossil fuels”: coal, oil, and gas. While short of an endorsement of a full fossil fuel phaseout—what scientists tell us is needed to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis—it is a milestone, decades in the making.
Yet even this tepid sign of progress faced pushback from fossil fuel executives and the politicians who do their bidding.
The story of COP28 is one of the power and perniciousness of the fossil fuel industry. The CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ oil company (the 12th largest in the world) served as conference chair, and industry lobbyists outnumbered delegates from nearly every country. The final text is full of industry-friendly loopholes, giving fossil fuel corporations leeway to continue to profit off dirty energy.
Trying to address the climate crisis while expanding drilling, mining, and fracking operations is like offering chemotherapy to a lung cancer patient while handing them pack after pack of Marlboro Reds.
It’s clear we are at the end of the fossil fuel era. Solar and wind energy are the cheapest forms of energy to build.
Like tobacco companies before them, fossil fuel corporations have known for years (with shocking accuracy) about the science: their products, when used as directed, would harm the health of the planet and cause widespread devastation. But the industry has time and again blocked significant action or sought to delay it through false promises. They did so again at COP28.
As the future is at stake, it falls to the rest of us to take urgent action. Indeed, civil society institutions are not waiting. Last week marked a major achievement: 1600 institutions across the world representing more than $40 trillion (with a “T”) have now pledged to move money away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy.
Finance represents a critical lever for climate action. Fossil fuel corporations rely on an open spigot of funds – project finance through underwriting and loans from major banks, plus investment capital and approval for continued fossil fuel expansion from investors, including the world’s largest firms, BlackRock and Vanguard.
When investors move their money en masse, fossil fuel corporations face reputational and brand risk that can have knock-on effects, including lower credit ratings and challenges with securing financing for projects and operations. Crucially, doing so also erodes fossil fuel corporations’ social license to expand their operations.
The 1600 institutions that have committed to move their money include groups like the National Academy of Medicine, because profiting from burning fossil fuels violates the medical ethic of “first, do no harm.” They include universities like Brandeis, rooted in Jewish history, experience, and values, whose students and administration recognize the climate crisis as an existential threat to their future.
It’s clear we are at the end of the fossil fuel era. Solar and wind energy are the cheapest forms of energy to build. The market itself is acting on this imperative. Fossil fuels as a sector have performed worse financially over the past decade than the rest of the market. Over the last 30 years, they have shrunk from a quarter of the market to around 5%. According to a recent report, six public pensions could be $21 billion richer if they had ditched investments in coal, oil, and gas a decade ago.
As the future is at stake, it falls to the rest of us to take urgent action.
Faith-based institutions, representing more than a third of the commitments, are at the forefront of this movement for change. As Pope Francis has encouraged, we “must listen to science and institute a rapid and equitable transition to end the era of fossil fuel.”
One year ago, my organization, Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, released a report about the investment capital of major Jewish institutions. The report found that these institutions had a substantial opportunity to move more than $3 billion in capital out of fossil fuels and into clean energy, and offered a roadmap to achieve this goal. Since last year, the climate crisis has grown more urgent, and so has the power of our faith and moral voice.
Faith groups are leading. They are making prudent, long-term decisions that will protect their communities. Join us before it is too late.
Rabbi Jacob Siegel
Rabbi Jacob Siegel is Climate Finance Advisor at Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. He supports Jewish organizations to make their investments and banking relationships more resilient by screening out fossil fuels and investing in a clean energy future.
Tags: Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, End the Era of Fossil Fuels, Rabbi Jacob Siegel