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December 3, 2015

While Gates Pledges Investment, 350.org Peddles Faulty Divestment Figures

This week, Bill Gates made headlines with the launch of his Breakthrough Energy Coalition — an initiative that will bring 28 of the world’s largest private companies to actively invest billions of dollars into renewable energy research and development. But rather than taking a moment to applaud Gates’ announcement, divestment activists are busy pushing around their latest outlandish claim in what amounts to be nothing more than an attention grabbing sideshow.

That’s right, 350.org has one-upped itself, now proclaiming that not $2.6 trillion – a figure publicized in a debunked report from Arabella Advisors — but $3.4 trillion has been pledged to the divestment movement. To be clear, this big claim has no report or official numbers to back it up. But, given how misleading Arabella’s report was, we can assume that the noise being made around this press release is equally questionable.

Even 350.org itself stated “the $3.4 trillion represents the total amount of assets represented by institutions, not the amount of money divested, which is difficult to track due to varying degrees of disclosure.” 350.org’s very own executive director May Boeve even claimed that 3.7 percent of a portfolio is typically invested directly in fossil fuels.  So, by 350.org’s own admission, this proves the new $3.4 trillion figure to be completely inflated, with the New York Times saying the figure is “hardly a precise calculation.”

Divestment has also taken on a very broad interpretation by activists over the years. They began by demanding all direct and indirect holdings in coal, oil and natural gas to be sold.  When that proved to be completely unrealistic and financially harmful, (see Fischel and Cornell reports) the standard began to soften. At this point they’ll count anything a win—even an announcement from a school like Oxford, who pledged full divestment despite its endowment completely lacking any relevant energy holdings to begin with. Meanwhile, back home, the academic divestment movement is actually confronted with stalling momentum across the country.

Even on the private side, foundations like the Rockefellers, who made quite the show of their “decision” to divest, haven’t actually followed through on their promises. While the announcement was portrayed in the media as a “turning point,” in reality the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund – who funds 350.org – hasn’t truly divested. Note that the Rockefeller family fund actually kept all of its ExxonMobil stocks.

But what about Bill Gates and his announcement to create a new investment fund?

As activists’ attempts at persuading the Gates Foundation to divest have fallen flat, so have their attempts at pushing around false data. In fact, The Guardian initially set out to make the Gates and Wellcome Trust divest as two central goals of their campaign. But as DivestmentFacts.com reported earlier this year, both foundations ultimately rejected divestment, despite the efforts and protests of activists. Instead, Gates’ decision to invest, rather than divest, has won wide support from even the likes of divestment hero Tom Styer, who has thrown billions of dollars behind the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Similarly, President Obama has created a parallel multinational investment program called Mission Innovation that was launched along with Gates’ initiative.

But rather than give in to a symbolic campaign, Gates wrote that he plans to use the initiative to attract investors and bridge the gap between “promising concepts and viable products.” According to the Washington Post, Gates said he was “optimistic that we can invent the tools we need” to combat climate change while still providing energy for the world’s poor. In response, groups from both sides of the aisle have praised Gate’s dedication to innovation and investment, regardless of his outspoken opposition to divestment as a strategy to mitigate carbon emissions.

So while 350.org has been sideshow, the Gates Foundation has shown that there are far more productive alternatives to divestment than empty gestures and fabricated numbers.