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Why targeting U.S. college portfolios won’t stop climate change

February 11, 2015, 1:47 PM UTC
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LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 31: A Hotshot fire crew takes break on a scorched ridge shortly before sunset the Powerhouse fire on May 31, 2013 south of Lake Hughes, California. Firefighters have been battling hot dry conditions. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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In 2011, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and other environmental activists launched a divestment campaign that, over time, has expanded across university campuses and become part of the backdrop in the climate change conversation. The campaign often points to the Carbon Underground” list of top 200 public fossil fuel companies based on the potential climate impact of their reserves.

I first heard about the list from a few Princeton University students who asked me for an opinion during a speaking engagement at the Princeton Club of New York. While my mind raced for a publicly acceptable answer, all I could think about was whether NRG Energy, the electric company I am CEO of, was on the boycott list.

Much to my relief, NRG was not; the list consisted of companies that produce fossil fuels (or at least own the reserves in the ground). This surprised me, given that while NRG is the second largest power generation company in the United States, it’s also one of the largest emitters of carbon. NRG, like virtually all electricity producers, principally converts thermal energy embedded in fossil fuels into electric energy — a process that directly causes the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

This led me to ask a broader question: why is the divestment campaign targeting oil, gas and coal companies only – and not electric companies or other industries, or businesses or even individuals who consume fossil fuels?

Part of the reason is because the valuations of fossil fuel stocks are based on fossil reserves and there is no real alternative to monetizing reserves other than to sell them for consumption. In contrast, electricity producers can (as we and others are beginning to demonstrate) diversify our asset base away from fossil fuels and still thrive. But perhaps the most compelling reason NOT to target consumers of fossil fuels is that it would mean targeting virtually everybody, including – presumably – the organizers of the divestment campaign themselves.

This logical flaw is one of several reasons why I don’t support the fossil fuel divestment campaign. With Global Divestment Day kicking off on Friday, it’s important to look closely at the divestment efforts. Simply, it’s just not feasible to envision fossil fuel usage ending any time soon, an unavoidable fact that blurs the desired outcome for the campaign and dilutes its potential material impact.

There’s also the issue of scale, since the justification for and against divestment both have their proponents. As of February, 16 colleges have divested from fossil fuels, most of which have small endowments. The most notable is Stanford University, which agreed to divert its $18.7 billion endowment away from direct investment in coal companies. Even if the sum seems impressive, it pales in comparison to the vast sums of investment capital ready, willing and able to invest in energy companies, regardless of whether they emit carbon. Unless divestment participation ramps up dramatically, the campaign won’t have much of a direct impact on the valuation or the business behaviors of the energy companies directly targeted.

Regardless of whether the campaign succeeds, what worries me as the CEO of a fossil fuel consuming energy company is that the vortex of the divestment campaign is university campuses. Today’s students are of the millennial generation – at 80 million strong, the largest generation in American history and the largest segment of the U.S. population – a generation that wants there to be a purpose and a social conscience embedded in every consumer decision they make. The last members of that generation will enter college around 2022 and leave campus in 2026. That means we have 12 more years of millennials in college and, for my part, I would hate to see those students exposed to campaigns about the evils of fossil fuel-consuming energy companies. After all, these students are NRG’s future customers.

In business, where there is risk, there is opportunity. And while the divestment effort may or may not succeed in bringing about a symbolically punitive action against fossil fuel companies, it cannot help but succeed in creating a negative perception against those companies in the minds of students. This may foreclose the chance we have right now to take the awareness it raises and turn it into an opportunity to connect with this generation and galvanize them, as consumers, into the type of action – and answers – to which American business will be highly responsive.

Climate change is, to be sure, an intergenerational issue but it belongs to the millennials more than any other. They will suffer the brunt of the consequences and, unfortunately it appears that if we don’t get going now, they will have to implement the solutions.

I focus on implementation because most of the solutions exist today. A suite of large-scale and distributed clean energy technologies have reached the maturity, and the price point, that makes sense for large-scale commercial deployment. What is lacking is the market catalyst for that comprehensive deployment.

I’m betting on the millennials to be that catalyst.

David Crane is CEO of NRG Energy.

Correction, January 29, 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated that 350.org publishes the Carbon Underground list. The list is created and published by Fossil Free Indexes.