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Word came recently that both the Philadelphia Quakers and the Unitarian General Assembly have decided to divest from fossil fuels. It followed by a few weeks the news that the Roman Catholic University of Dayton and Union Theological Seminary, the home of many a great thinker, had done likewise.
In each case I felt a kind of surge of joy, that these historic institutions were helping transform the political and moral landscape, redefining for our time what’s right and wrong. Destroying the climate, they were saying, is incompatible with our evolving ethical sense. We used to think investing in fossil fuel was okay, but the new science has convinced us, and we don’t think that way any longer.
I could, I guess, have felt anger that they waited so long—that for years their investment portfolios had helped drive the expansion of coal and gas and oil, in turn driving up the temperature of the planet for decades to come. But that didn’t occur to me. It was joy only.
It did, however, occur to the New York Times, which for a while last Friday had at the very top of its website a strange story excoriating an investor named Tom Steyer, who more than a year ago divested his holdings in fossil fuel companies, and when he couldn’t and when he knew he couldn’t square his new personal beliefs with the investment mandate of the firm he’d founded, he quit his job.
Even so, the Times noted, “the coal-related projects his firm bankrolled will generate tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years, if not decades, to come.” Which is both true and obvious: How could it be any different? Tom Steyer’s decision to divest couldn’t shut down the coal mines he’d helped build; it could only help insure no new ones would be constructed. None of us have the power to travel back in time.
The Times story was a transparent hit job. It drew on the work of a partisan connected to the Koch brothers and writing for the rightwing blog Powerline, which had been insisting for months that Steyer—who not only divested but went on to devote a sizeable portion of his fortune to fighting for climate action—was a “hypocrite,” in fact an “epic hypocrite.” One of the two reporters on the story—Coral Davenport—has in her brief tenure at the Times regularly disdained the grassroots climate movement for action against projects like the Keystone pipeline. (My confident prediction is that when we march in record numbers for climate action in New York City on Sept. 21 she’ll figure out some way to make it all seem small and silly.) The piece on Steyer, that she co-wrote with Michael Barbaro, was not a skeptical but a cynical piece of work: It built a strawman, bent him into an impossible position, and proceeded to light him on fire.
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