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Divest-Invest: Foundations Urged to Back Climate Solutions While Divesting from Fossil Fuels

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The Wallace Global Fund recently awarded the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe the inaugural Henry A. Wallace Award and a $1 million investment in renewable energy projects led by the tribe. We talk to the fund’s executive director, Ellen Dorsey, about the "Divest-Invest" movement.

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AMY GOODMAN: Ellen Dorsey, this is part of what you’ve been doing for some years right now, this whole issue of divest and invest, people who—if you can explain what you’re talking about when you talk about taking assets of a foundation, and where you invest them?

ELLEN DORSEY: Well, first, I would say that there has been a growing movement of activists calling for institutional investors to divest their investments from fossil fuel companies. And we both supported that movement with our grant dollars, but we had already begun our own journey on overhauling our investments, with the idea that it wasn’t OK to be invested in companies that were driving problems that we were asking our grantees to solve, particularly when we were invested in those companies with the 95 percent of our assets and with the 5 percent making grants. So we had already begun our own journey to overhaul our investments.

And when the fossil fuel divestment movement began to explode, we started to organize philanthropy as a sector of that movement. And we went out to peer institutions and said, "Climate change isn’t just any issue. It affects the mission of all foundations. And now is the time to not only stand up and divest your assets from fossil fuels, but put 5 percent of your assets into climate solutions—renewables, energy efficiency, clean tech, etc.—because that’s what’s needed to accelerate the clean energy transition." I would say that we weren’t initially met with a great deal of enthusiasm by our peer institutions, because there’s always been a firewall between the investments and the grants. But, actually, in a pretty rapid period of time, we’ve now come close to 160 foundations around the world that have signed the pledge to get out of fossil fuels and put 5 percent in the solutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what does that mean? What about foundations that say, "We’d like to do this, but then we won’t have money to give for grants"?

ELLEN DORSEY: Well, first of all, I think that’s based on false assumptions about the performance of their investments. It’s very clear. We got out of coal before coal tanked. We got out of oil before oil tanked. And our investment portfolio has been doing fantastically well. We beat our benchmarks consistently. So, it’s a false assumption that you would lose money.

This is an industry of the past. We are in the middle of a transition. Clearly, how fast we make this energy transition will determine the impact on the planet and on the lives of millions of people. But the transition is occurring. So, those that are investing in the future are going to capture the upside of a new market, a new economy.

So it’s both for financial reasons and ethical reasons that foundations and other endowments should be divesting and investing. And, in fact, foundations, along with faith groups, universities, we receive charitable tax status because we serve the public good. And if, arguably, our investments are contributing to the destruction of the public good, I believe we have mission-level responsibility to divest our assets.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the energy assets you’re investing in?

ELLEN DORSEY: We’re invested in—I mean, when you think about it, every industry needs to decarbonize, to reduce the use of fossil fuels. So, the kind of large umbrella of clean tech, you know, more sustainable businesses, it’s almost endless in terms of every industry is implicated. But we’re invested in renewables. We’re invested in energy efficiency. We’re invested in clean tech. And, increasingly, we’re invested in energy access. There’s a billion people in the world that do not have access to energy today, and they can leapfrog the old fossil fuel industry and the grid infrastructure with clean, renewable and affordable energy. So investing in energy access also contributes to addressing poverty. So we’re investing in energy access, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Given that universities are being pressured to do this, and now philanthropies, are there studies that prove that you can actually make money if you invest in renewables rather than fossil fuels, coal, oil?

ELLEN DORSEY: Absolutely. And, in fact, what really began as a student movement quickly migrated to the mainstream and the financial mainstream. Now, from the head of the Bank of England to the heads of insurance companies, they’re saying it is actually your fiduciary duty to look at climate risk to your portfolio, because the financial risks are so significant.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what do you think, Scott Wallace, your grandfather, the late Vice President Henry Wallace, would say to President Trump today?

SCOTT WALLACE: I think he would say, "Please resign. Just go away." He’s bad for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Wallace and Ellen Dorsey of the Wallace Global Fund. And in full disclosure, Democracy Now! is also supported by the Wallace Global Fund.

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