How The Rockefellers Became Environmentalists

There is nothing more delightful than getting a decent dose of irony. If it happens to be irony of a particularly delicious kind, then I say bring it on. It lifts the spirits, makes you smile and gives you hope.

So you can imagine my reaction when I opened the newspaper this morning and saw the headline: Rockefeller Foundation To Divest From Fossil Fuels. I initially thought I was seeing things. The Rockefellers giving up petroleum is like saying the Pope is giving up religion. This a family whose very name conjures up the black stuff. They are the real deal when it comes to black gold or Texas tea. Forget about the story of a man named Jed. His name was John D. Rockefeller.

Standard Oil, the Rockefeller company was, at one time, the largest oil refiner in the world and the benchmark for the industry. It gave birth to numerous global empires including one of the biggest, ExxonMobil. And now the family is turning their backs on the industry that earned them a fortune. They want to invest in, wait for it, renewable energy. It is the kind of betrayal that sits comfortably alongside that guy Iscariot and his 30 pieces of silver.

So if you are going to stab an industry in the back, the 64 trillion dollar question is why? Why would you do it? The answer, would you believe, is breathtakingly simple. Fossil fuels are bad for people and bad for this planet. That’s what the current crop of Rockefeller heirs are saying. According to Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, a great, great grand-daughter of the big man himself there is a moral imperative to preserve a healthy planet. You might think that kind of talk would be enough to have John D turning in his grave but maybe not says Stephen Heintz, the Director of the family’s philanthropic foundation the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Heintz, says the move to divest from fossil fuels would be in line with John D’s thinking. As an astute businessman looking into the future he would be investing in clean, renewable energy and that is exactly what the family intends to do. In other words take the family’s $860 million in assets and put them into clean energy.

There is no denying the announcement was deliberately timed to coincide with a big UN climate change summit in New York due to begin next week. It will be the first gathering of its type since the unsuccessful climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009. And it should come as no surprise that a number of prominent people are 100 percent in support of the Rockefellers. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he believed the Rockefeller announcement was a “tipping point of transition to a new energy economy that was just and equitable.” Actor Mark Ruffalo chimed in with the observation that the Rockefellers were not silly people. They knew how to deal with money and renewable energy was investing in the future.

It would be easy to get carried away with political zealotry and see the Rockefellers as knights in shining armor motivated by a burning desire to save our environment. That is partially true but there is also the cynical business of wanting to make more money underpinning the Rockefeller decision. One of the other trustees Stephen Rockefeller said as much when he talked about the moral and economic dimension behind the family decision. The economic dimension that he is referring to is a risk that Governments will impose tighter regulations on the petroleum industry because of the effects of climate change. Instead of being dug up, oil and a number of other fossil fuels would be left in the ground and that cuts into industry profit.

The Rockefeller decision is part of a growing trend already established. In recent years, about 180 philanthropic societies, religious organisations, pension funds, local government as well as hundreds of wealthy individual investors have pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies and reinvest in cleaner alternatives.

It will barely cause a ripple in its effect on the world’s global oil giants. Exxon Mobil generated $111.6 billion in revenue and $8.8 billion in profit in only the second quarter of 2014. But you couldn’t put a price in terms of the PR value from the Rockefeller decision which is a huge boost to the campaigners who say we are living in a planet that is getting warmer every year. Experts say global greenhouse gas emissions increased 2.3 percent in 2013 to record levels. China, the United States, the European Union and India are the worst emitters. Environmentalists point out that emissions rose by 2.9 percent in the United States after several years of decline. That is very troubling.

Scientists say the clock is ticking and emissions must start declining within the next few years for one very good reason. Time is running out to dial back the damage. The Rockefellers clearly don’t want to be caught standing on the wrong side of climate change. Those who do might be in danger of losing everything especially the world we live in.

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