In the 1980s, hundreds of American cities, states and universities sold their investments in South African companies as part of a protest against that country's former apartheid government.
Now, environmental groups are trying to duplicate that effort, but with global warming polluters in the role of villain. And, just as with South African divestment a generation ago, the Bay Area is at the head of the parade again, prompting cheers from environmentalists and jeers from skeptics who say the whole effort amounts to little more than empty symbolism.
On Tuesday night, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a government agency based in San Jose, is scheduled to vote to drop its investments in fossil fuel companies. If the measure passes, as expected, the water district will become the first Silicon Valley governmental agency to join the movement. It also will join Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond -- along with Seattle, Portland and other cities -- among a small, but growing group of local governments that have taken similar stands in recent months.
"I think we can set an example. Water districts are so affected by climate change -- from declining snow pack to the increased water usage we're going to face as temperatures continue to rise," said Brian Schmidt, the water district board member who is leading the effort. "I see no reason why we should fund the same corporations that are making these problems even worse."
The water district provides drinking water and flood protection to 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County. It has only one fossil fuel investment, a $3 million medium-term note from Chevron in its $453 million capital reserves fund. If the policy passes, district finance officials would sell that note when it reaches maturity in June 2016, unless it can be sold at a profit before then.
The district also would ban itself from investing in any of the 200 largest oil, coal and natural gas companies in the world in the future. That list includes giants like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Arch Coal and Exxon, whose products the majority of the world's climate scientists say are releasing carbon dioxide that is trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere, warming global temperatures, melting polar ice and increasing sea levels.
Leaders of the divestment movement say the goal is to turn fossil fuel companies into pariahs, the way activists did with tobacco companies, as a way to limit their influence in Congress and state legislatures.
"We're not going to bankrupt Exxon. We're under no illusion of that," said Bill McKibben, a Vermont writer who cofounded the nonprofit group 350.org, which is leading the divestment effort.
"On the other hand, they need to be politically bankrupted. And we're capable of doing that. We need to turn them into the tobacco companies and weaken their political power so that they can't just have their way all the time in Washington and other capitals with no problem," McKibben said.
The industry, needless to say, has a different point of view.
"It is unfortunate some people seem to feel supplying consumers with reliable and affordable energy is somehow comparable to apartheid," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, in Sacramento.
"Petroleum energy provides billions of people worldwide with mobility, comfort, security and economic prosperity, he said."
Hull said that many oil companies "understand the desire to develop new alternative energy sources and reduce our collective carbon footprint" and that many fossil fuel companies are working on renewable energy projects.
Jeremy Carl, an energy expert and research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who has been critical of the tactics of the environmental movement, said that climate change is occurring and is a problem. But rather than divestment, activists should work with companies and governments to promote issues like tax credits to encourage renewable energy research, or a carbon tax that would be offset by tax refunds to the public.
"We've seen people saying the fossil fuel companies are awful, and then driving home in their car and turning on their natural gas-powered electricity," he said. "I find it totally a distasteful and hypocritical way of looking at a serious situation. It trivializes an important issue."
In July, the Berkeley City Council voted to divest from fossil fuel companies, joining 16 other cities that have either divested or started the process. Berkeley has set up meetings with CalPers, the state retirement fund, to ask it to divest billions it holds in fossil fuel companies. Six universities, most recently San Francisco State, which divested in May, and 12 churches, including the national United Church of Christ, are also on board.
"We've done our best for so many years to play defense against bad ideas from the fossil fuel industry, like the Keystone pipeline," said McKibben, who is also a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. "Everybody's getting a kick out of playing offense for a while."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.
Cities that have divested fossil fuel holdings or begun the process:
Santa Fe, N.M.
State College, Pa.