Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

A Rockefeller Tells Why the U.S. Must Move Away from Fossil Fuels

Words by Leon Kaye

Long after John D. Rockefeller and the oil company he founded, Standard Oil, began refining oil in 1870 (and 40 years later, split into 34 companies), his descendants are overall still very much active in American politics, business and philanthropy. Many of them continued to hold shares in companies that were once part of the Standard Oil empire, including Esso, Socony, Chevron and, of course, ExxonMobil.

But in recent years, Rockefeller's great-grandchildren and their children have been divesting from those energy company stocks. Two years ago, one of the Rockefeller extended family’s philanthropies, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, decided to ramp up its commitment to sustainable development projects by selling off securities related to the oil and gas industry. That decision was an important signal in the growing momentum amongst individuals and institutions to divest from fossil fuels — an amount that reached as high as $2.6 trillion last year.

Meanwhile another family organization, the Rockefeller Family Fund, said it will work aggressively to divest from oil and gas companies. The managers of this philanthropy cited ExxonMobil’s alleged work dating back to the 1980s to confuse the American public about the impacts of climate change. In turn, those accusations have led the Department of Justice to forward a request to the FBI to investigate whether the company failed to disclose “truthful information” about climate change. Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled last week that ExxonMobil must include a climate change resolution on its annual shareholder proxy statement.

The developments inspired Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, to donate energy company shares, including those of ExxonMobil, to the Rockefeller Family Fund’s environmental program, a decision she explained last month in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. The Wall Street Journal has long credited her with uniting four generations of Rockefellers to pressure ExxonMobil to acknowledge climate change risks and invest in more clean-energy technologies.

To gain more insight on her thoughts on how the U.S. can transition toward a low-carbon economy, TriplePundit interviewed Dr. Goodwin last week by telephone while she was in her Boston office.

When it comes to taking real action on climate change, “the U.S. right now is like a weightlifter running with cans of soup,” Dr. Goodwin told us.

Arguing that the U.S. can do far more to foster sustainable development and clean-energy investment, she added: “We have the muscle, and we can make change. But a small number of rich energy companies addicted to profits from the past are just unwilling to let us meet the needs of the future, so we as a society have not been able to show what we can do.”

Indeed, more companies, state and municipal governments, and even the U.S. Department of Energy have done more on the climate change front in recent years — but many of these initiatives have long-term aims: The year 2030 is seen as the goal date on many such announcements and press releases.

That doesn’t satisfy Dr. Goodwin. “2030 is much too late,” she insisted, “as I believe more serious research in renewable energy research and development -- along with policy changes such as the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies — are needed if we are going to see a rapid decline in carbon emissions by 2025.”

So, what is necessary in order to make these changes occur even more rapidly? Dr. Goodwin wants to see a large mobilization of resources similar to what the U.S. government launched in the 1940s to hasten the end of World War II. “Something on the scale of the Manhattan Project,” Dr. Goodwin explained. “It wouldn’t be monolithic and not a one-size-fit-all project. But we must have a patchwork of big and small solutions, along with conservation efforts -- even ExxonMobil says they are open to conservation.”

While Dr. Goodwin believes the U.S. needs to do more to further research and investment in renewables, she insists even more can be done when it comes to environmental conservation.

“The other crucial thing to remember is that this is not only about energy, but it’s about the health of our ecosystems and ability to sequester carbon,” she said. “Advancing eco-agriculture, and the preservation and planting of forests, are just a few examples of what we can do to increase our ability to absorb carbon. The fact is that more restoration and conservation can make a big difference.”

Dr. Goodwin and relatives from her Rockefeller side of the family have been integral in the movement to divest from conventional energy companies and keep those reserves of hydrocarbons in the ground. But she also made the point that individuals -- and, of course, individual investors -- can do their part as well. So, what if you only own a relatively few number of shares in these companies? “So hang on to those ‘sin stocks’ and vote on your proxies,” Dr. Goodwin replied, “that is one way to go about making a difference.”

Taking a cue from what analysts are saying about stocks in particular industries is also a way to approach divestment in the long term. “Let’s suppose that in 10 years, it's widely agreed that your oil stocks will be worth a whole lot less and are not coming back,” Dr. Goodwin posited. “If you’re a smart investor, you’ll think to yourself, ‘I’d better sell my shares.' Well, since this knowledge is widespread enough, instead of waiting in 10 years, maybe I sell in six years.”

But don’t jump into that hot solar or clean-technology stock, however. “There are no safe havens in investing today, with too much money chasing too few places to invest,” Dr. Goodwin continued. “Investment funds with carbon-free portfolios would be my recommendation, but if you go with one of those, move cautiously, only a little at a time.” Such has been the approach of the foundations affiliated with the wider Rockefeller clan, as they have made it clear their divestment strategies will unfold over the next several years.

But this is not just a "sooner is better than later" argument. Overall, Dr. Goodwin believes taking such action now is better than soon.

“The time to get out is now,” she Dr. Goodwin told 3p. “Since I began thinking about doing this, I just came to the conclusion that these stocks are really not good long-term bets.” Hence her donation of her shares to the Rockefeller Family Fund, which promptly sold them in order to fund climate change-related programs.

Much work can be done on the local level as well. One example that Dr. Goodwin pointed out during our interview is the Oberlin Project, a joint effort in Oberlin, Ohio, which involves its famous liberal arts college, city government, and local private and nonprofit partners to bolster the city’s long-term resilience and prosperity. “Certainly going local is often the solution when the larger picture is riddled with politics,” Dr. Goodwin added.

Overall Dr. Goodwin’s tone during this conversation was optimistic, thoughtful and pointed, but it turned somber when it came to wider U.S. politics. “When it comes to climate change, money and politics, those that care about the future and the earth will have to face the fact that government is essential,” Dr. Goodwin said. “Government is broken as long as it's ruled by a few wealthy corporations, so working on overturning Citizens United, and supporting laws like that of Maine’s that work on getting money out of politics, is important if these changes are going to happen.”

Image credit: Neva Rockefeller Goodwin

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Energy & Environment