Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, explains to DW how it makes perfect sense that a fund which got rich on oil is now divesting from fossil fuels.
With its announcement to pull out of oil and coal, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund shifted nearly a billion dollars of capital out of fossil fuels and into the green economy – making it a figurehead of the divestment movement. DW talked to the fund’s president about what was behind the move.
DW: John D. Rockefeller heralded a new era in history with Standard Oil. Are the Rockefellers now ending the oil age?
Stephen Heintz: We are hoping to help to finish the oil age. It is time to move away from fossil fuels, and to move as quickly as possible to clean, renewable energy in order to save the planet. The oil age is now coming to its own end.
Why was your announcement that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is pulling out of oil and coal such a big surprise?
It is ironic that the family whose wealth was created in the oil industry is now a leading force in the effort to abandon fossil fuels.
The Rockefellers are one of the wealthiest and most influential dynasties in America. Which impact did your announcement have?
I think it has helped to draw more attention to the risks of climate change, and significantly contributed to building momentum in the divestment movement. We hope that it will help trigger historic change.
Are there any figures?
By the time the world’s leaders gather in Paris in December for the climate negotiations, we expect that the total volume value of divested assets held by investors who have committed to divest from fossil fuels will be more than 2.5 trillion dollars. Maybe more.
A lot of institutions are pulling out of coal oil and gas. To ban coal is an important first step. During the Climate Conference in Paris we expect to announce more than 200 divesting institutions – some are very high-profile.
What is the reason for this gigantic shift of assets?
The moral urgency as well as the economic impact of the global carbon budget. One of our grantees is Carbon Tracker, a sophisticated, London-based research organization. Their analyses indicate that 60 to 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay unburned in the ground.
This is the only chance to remain below the significant 2-degree [Celsius] global warming barrier, and to avoid the worst climate catastrophes.
Last year UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and more than 400,000 demonstrators marched the streets of New York in order to mobilize climate action. Do stakeholders worry that oil, coal and gas will soon be slow sellers?
Yes. Indispensable new climate laws and CO2 taxes will significantly devaluate those assets.
What did you tell the Rockefeller family members?
We said that as a grant-maker devoting more than 40 percent of our grant dollars to efforts to fight climate change, it is morally inconsistent to stay invested in the fossil fuel industry. Also, economically there is a very strong case for pulling out of oil, coal and tar sands oil, and for shifting these assets into clean energy and new technology.
In 1870, John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, which made him the richest man of his time. Would he turn over in his grave if he heard the news?
John D. Rockefeller was a brilliant entrepreneur and innovator. He took advantage of what he saw in the future. He realized that oil, the new substance that had just been discovered, had the potential to transform the world – and make a lot of money. And he did both.
What would John D. Rockefeller do today?
Standard Oil was the word’s first truly global company. Rockefeller was a global thinker and a global actor. Today he would be looking at the globe and seeing enormous risks from climate change, with devastating economic consequences and enormous opportunities in the green sector. He would be looking at clean energy economy and saying: That is where the world is going. That is where the world needs to go. I want to get there first, to get significant returns.
What kind of an organization is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund?
We are a grant-making foundation with an endowment of about 860 million dollars. Fighting climate change is our number-one global priority. Roughly 40 percent of our annual grants are now devoted to saving the climate. Therefore, we felt more and more uncomfortable about funding industries which are causing global warming.
How close is the end of the oil age?
We are probably 20 to 30 years away.
Is it still possible to prevent the most horrifying scenarios?
We are facing two competing tipping points in global history. One is the climate tipping point: A point of no return. If we tip over that point, we can never recover, and we will suffer the devastating consequences.
The other is a green economy tipping point. And the question is which tipping point we will reach first. It is a race against time. We have to do everything we possibly can to reach the clean energy tipping point first.
What happens if we fail?
We will face massive climate disruptions, melting ice on the polls, more extreme and more frequent droughts and storms. There will be a massive loss of species, and we will face enormous challenges to provide food and water for billions of people.
Cities will be under water, whole islands will disappear. There will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees.
This suffering and the struggle for food and water has the potential to cause new wars and conflicts. We could be moving from an era of oil wars to a time of climate wars.
If we don’t prevent climate change, the refugee crisis we see today will look small in comparison to the crisis that we will happen later this century.
What to do?
We need to speed up and we need massive investments in the clean energy economy.
As a global society, we have to protect the one planet we have. The one planet on which all life depends.
Stephen Heintz has been president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund since 2001. Founded in 1940 by the sons and daughter of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is an international foundation with an endowment of $860 million (802 million euros).
Irene Hell conducted the interview.