"We chose divestment because it sends a public message that we demand a change in the way our fossil-fuel-dependent system operates."
By Dr. Onnie Byers, Chair, IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group – with input by Paul Herman and Emily Wick
The single greatest global environmental threat to all species is climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a coalition of the world’s experts on biodiversity, makes explicit the link between the warming climate and species extinction.
From ocean acidification that is destroying coral reefs and the species that depend on them to the melting sea ice that is disrupting ecosystems required for arctic species to survive, warming temperatures are already having disastrous effects across the globe, all due in large part to increased atmospheric CO2 levels.
The conservation community is well aware of the science and of the impacts of climate change on species that are occurring today. Zoos, aquariums and NGOs pride themselves on conserving species and working toward sustainability in their operations. Recently a movement for fossil fuel divestment has arisen as a way for businesses to speak volumes about the need for global action on climate change. And the time has come for conservation organizations to raise their voices and align their financial portfolios with their conservation missions.
Starting the Movement
The Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), a Specialist Group of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC) provides species conservation planning expertise to governments, specialist groups, zoos and aquariums, and other wildlife organizations, by using expert facilitation and the application of science-based planning tools. CBSG is dedicated to planning a future for wildlife but climate change stands to undermine these conservation efforts.
This led CBSG to create a movement with the express goal of seeing that “no government on the planet can ignore the danger of climate change and all must be actively working to realize ‘safe’ CO2 atmospheric concentration levels (i.e. <350ppm).” In partnership with 350.org, we established “Zoos & Aquariums for 350,” which calls on zoos and aquariums to pursue divestment of their institutions’ investments from fossil fuel companies.
We chose divestment because it sends a public message that we demand a change in the way our fossil-fuel-dependent system operates. It says that these organizations will participate in and support the hard work it will take to make that change happen. Though divestment is by nature a financial move, it is also a moral one: organizations committed to conservation can ensure that their money isn’t invested in any product that is causing climate change.
Our team at CBSG knew that if we were going to ask others to take this step, we would have to do it ourselves. Our move toward divestment would be purely symbolic if we were doing it alone. But we are not.
We added our voice to those of many other institutions making the same bold decision with the same message. The more people and organizations that join, the louder our message will be. This is the power of the movement and this is how change will happen.
Making it Happen
However, aligning actions with mission is easy in theory but getting directors and boards to approve takes a bit more effort. With concern for fiduciary responsibility and the assumption that a portfolio with fossil fuels will perform better than one without them, the initial reaction is often a cry it can’t be done!
But CBSG has proven otherwise.
Last year, the financial board of CBSG’s nonprofit support organization, Global Conservation Network (GCN), voted to become one of the very first conservation organizations in the world to divest from fossil fuel companies. Now, just one year later, we are 70 percent divested from the 200 fossil fuel companies with the most proven carbon reserves, and well on our way to reaching the goal of full divestiture by the end of 2017.
To formulate a fossil fuel-free portfolio that the financial board would approve of, we partnered with portfolio management firm HIP Investor. HIP Investor designs portfolios that reduce knowable risks, seek enhanced returns, and pursue net positive benefit to society and the environment. HIP developed an investment strategy for CBSG within the Vanguard platform that projects similar returns to the previous portfolio, debunking the myth that you must take a financial hit to divest.
The GCN Board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the proposed divestment plan because it appropriately aligns our investment strategy with CBSG’s purpose of planning a future for wildlife, while remaining fiscally prudent. Approving the portfolio fulfills the Board’s fiduciary duty because it takes into account the risk of declines in the market value that will likely occur as fossil fuel consumption falls due to stricter national regulations in compliance with international agreements on emission limits.
The Time for Action is Now
We know what needs to be done but we have been paralyzed for too long by a lack of direction and leadership. We know asking people to recycle and drive hybrid cars is just not enough, but we have been repeating that mantra for so long its become difficult to admit it amounts to next to nothing in terms of addressing the crisis we are all facing.
But admit it, and put in its place a new and effective set of achievable, meaningful action, we must.
Divestment is our demand of an end to business as usual. It is one action added to a greater movement calling for change. Through this movement, we have the opportunity to address the global crisis of climate change; and the chance to tackle the source of the problem that, if left unaddressed, will continue to undermine all of our conservation efforts.
About the Author:
Onnie Byers is the Chair of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. She earned her Ph.D. in reproductive physiology from the University of Minnesota and completed a post doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington D.C. Onnie joined the IUCN SSC’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group in 1991 as a Program Officer and was promoted to Executive Director in 2005, and appointed Chair in 2011. In addition to leading the organization, Onnie oversees its global climate change initiative and shares with CBSG’s Program Officers responsibility for design and facilitation of a wide range of Species Conservation Planning and other CBSG workshops.
Onnie was integral in the establishment of the Amphibian Ark and continues to serve on its executive committee. She also serves on the SSC Steering Committee, the International Species Information System (ISIS) Board, the Conservation and Sustainability Committee of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Board of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL).
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