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June 8, 2015

Actually, No: The Rockefellers Didn’t Divest

Remember last fall when the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune announced their decision to divest their financial holdings of companies that produce fossil fuels? Given the history of the Rockefeller family, of course, the announcement was treated as a massive news event by the Washington Post, New York Times and others, with lead divestment activist Bill McKibben referring to the announcement as a major “turning point” for his campaign. But for all the hype the news originally engendered, does anyone else think it’s strange that no one seems interested in following-up to see whether they actually went through with it?

We do, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. And what did we find? For starters, the Rockefellers themselves aren’t personally divesting from anything – least of all, fossil-energy related firms. Neither is the Rockefeller Foundation, which is reported to be opposed to divestment. The Rockefeller family fund will also keep its shares of ExxonMobil stock, putatively for the purpose of “press[ing] the oil and gas producer to account for its carbon assets,” according to Newsday.  Not even the Rockefeller’s much smaller charity, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), is fully divesting, instead only removing coal and oil sands stocks from its portfolio. As The Guardian reported, the results of implementing that policy have heretofore been limited:

“Six months later, the fund is proceeding cautiously to avoid losing money. RBF at the time had 5.2% of its endowment, or about $45m, in fossil fuels …. The fund has pulled out of coal and [oil] sands, but remains invested in oil and gas. Overall, exposure to fossil fuels has dropped less than 1% since that September announcement.” (emphasis added)

Of course, never mentioned once as part of all this coverage was the fact that RBF is both a major funder of Bill McKibben’s 350.org group and has dumped millions of dollars into major campaigns opposing Keystone XL and anti-shale initiatives. The fact that RBF was profiting from oil sands and coal investments while running these campaigns in the first place should have been the story. What’s even more telling, however, is that even the largest funders of the divestment movement themselves say they can’t afford to divest from fossil fuels. But that apparently hasn’t stopped them from trying to convince others to do precisely that – to do what they say, not what they do.

The fact that all these large environmental organizations actually invest actively in fossil-related energy companies isn’t a new revelation. 350.org’s own Naomi Klein has routinely chastised groups she deems not as pure — such as the Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund — for maintaining investments in hydrocarbon energy. As she wrote in 2013, “the message to Big Green is clear: cut your ties with the fossils, or become one yourself.” Could it be that Klein hasn’t taken up pursuing this threat because even her own organization continues to be funded by massive foundations that have investments in fossil fuels?

Klein continues:

“Let me be absolutely clear: plenty of green groups have managed to avoid this mess. Greenpeace, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and a host of smaller organizations like Oil Change International and the Climate Reality Project don’t have endowments and don’t invest in the stock market.”

Interestingly, Klein addresses concerns not just about investing in fossil fuel industry but receiving money from foundations with ties to fossil fuel investments. As she writes:

“The purists will point out that no big green group is clean, since virtually every one takes money from foundations built on fossil fuel empires—foundations that continue to invest their endowments in fossil fuels today. It’s a fair point. Consider the largest foundation of them all: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As of December 2012, it had at least $958.6 million—nearly a billion dollars—invested in just two oil giants … Does it really make sense to fight malaria while fueling one of the reasons it may be spreading more ferociously in some areas? Clearly not. And it makes even less sense to raise money in the name of fighting climate change, only to invest that money in, say, ExxonMobil stocks. Yet that is precisely what some groups appear to be doing.”

Despite this opinion, however, Klein’s 350.org receives grants from RBF, a fund that continues to invest in fossil fuels, while the organization continues to pressure other groups, like the philanthropic Gates Foundation, to divest.

Perhaps now is the time to start taking a closer look at the financial relationships of the very groups shouting loudest for divestment. Because, so long as groups like 350.org remain financially dependent on funds derived from the very industry it seeks to destroy, how credible can it actually be?