Climate change activist Bill McKibben has been spending considerable time in Pittsburgh recently, first for the Power Shift 2013 conference in October, and on Monday to receive an award from the Thomas Merton Center.
The Thomas Merton Center bills itself as “Pittsburgh’s peace and social justice center,” and along with McKibben, they are launching a campaign to pressure the City of Pittsburgh and other regional institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Erika Staaf, clean water advocate at PennEnvironment, said the divestment campaign is especially salient for the Pittsburgh region.
“We’re in the eye of the storm when it comes to shale gas extraction and the fracking debate,” Staaf said. “Coal and other fossil fuel extraction and development have a stronghold here. The power and influence of these industries threaten to thrust our region backward toward the 19th century, when instead we could be zooming ahead to the 21st century.”
Staaf said while PennEnvironment supports the campaign and helped organize Monday's press conference, they are not currently an official partner in the campaign.
The local divestment campaign is part of a global effort launched last year by McKibben, who founded the grassroots climate change organization 350.org to encourage governments, universities, churches and other entities to pull their investments from the fossil fuel industry.
Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and 15 other U.S. cities have so far pledged to pursue divestment. Churches and universities are also participating in the campaign.
“The United Church of Christ, the oldest Protestant denomination in the country that traces its roots back to the Pilgrims, cut right to the chase and urged its member congregations to divest this year, arguing that it made no sense to pay one’s pastor by investing in companies that were running Genesis in reverse,” McKibben said.
McKibben said even he has been surprised by the rapid acceleration of the divestment campaign.
“Oxford University published a study two weeks ago saying this was the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history, faster even than the powerful campaign a quarter century ago that helped bring down apartheid,” he said.
According to McKibben, divestment from fossil fuels is not only good for the environment, but also it makes financial sense. He said that the fossil fuel industry currently has in reserve five times the amount of fuel that world governments and climate change scientists agree would be safe to burn.
“There’s what you might call a carbon bubble,” McKibben said. “Were the world ever to take climate change seriously, were the world to do what it’s said it’s going to do, there’d be enormous stranded asset, all that coal and gas and oil underground.”
McKibben said the price of fossil fuels would drop to roughly half of what it is today if governments and municipalities began to turn aggressively toward renewable sources of energy, making fossil fuels a poor long-term investment.
Many supporters of the coal, gas, and oil industries point to the economic disruption that comes with heightened environmental regulations and would likely also follow a massive divestment campaign. Workers who depend on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods are understandably worried about losing their jobs.
McKibben said he is sensitive to these concerns.
“For those people we desperately need and are committed to a just transition, not to simply dumping people aside because physics dictates we can no longer burn coal,” he said.
McKibben also said that a responsible transition to renewable energy might actually create more jobs than it eliminates.
“Fossil fuel is heavy capital intensive, renewable energy tends to be heavily labor intensive,” McKibben said.
Wanda Guthrie, chair of the Environmental Justice Committee at the Thomas Merton Center, said she does not currently know how much money the city of Pittsburgh has invested in the fossil fuel industry.