Neva Rockefeller Goodwin was born into a family whose ancestors built the American oil industry. But now she's taking steps to direct some of the family's considerable wealth away from oil and toward addressing climate change.
Goodwin, the great-granddaughter of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, recently gave away all her stock in ExxonMobil to one of the family's foundations. The Rockefeller Family Fund, led by other descendants of the late oil baron, sold the stocks for $400,000 and will use the proceeds for its environmental work.
Goodwin is an economist with a focus on sustainable development. She's also the co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. She was inspired by the recent reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times that found that Exxon's experts knew that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change, but the company hid that information for decades and publicly worked to undermine the science. Exxon has denied the assertions and says the reporting mischaracterizes the company's position on climate change.
Her decision to dump her shares in the company, Goodwin says, was both a financial matter and a moral one, as fossil fuels are no longer a sound investment. "This was practical move, as well as one driven by my sense of what's wrong and right in the world," Goodwin told The Huffington Post.
Her great-grandfather's company, Standard Oil, was split following a 1911 Supreme Court antitrust case, out of which emerged Exxon. Rockefeller's holdings in the company were part of the fortune he amassed in his lifetime.
Goodwin's Exxon shares had been placed in a trust for her in 1954, she said. And while she doesn't feel "deeply identified with Exxon," she said she does "feel some heightened sense of responsibility."
"There's a strong argument that the use of fossil fuels had a big role in increasing standards of living. That's all good, but that was the 20th century," Goodwin said. "I'm not happy owning stocks that have benefited me in the past, but [that] are really hurting the world in the present and the future."
She likes to think that her great-grandfather would have seen the need to shift away from fossil fuels, too. "He was a very, very clear-eyed and practical person," she said. "I am certain that faced with the realities, he would say, 'Of course we have to invest heavily in alternative sources of energy.' It's the practical answer."
In the past, Goodwin and other relatives tried to sway the company as shareholders, lobbying its leaders to pay attention to climate change. But they were not successful. In February, Goodwin announced her decision to drop her Exxon stock in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
She's not sure that abandoning the holdings outright will have much of an impact either.
"They are pretty darn impervious to what anybody thinks," she said.
But she hopes that the recent reporting on the company will help.
"If all these things together create a groundswell of public opinion, that may finally get to the point where Exxon has to pay attention," Goodwin said. "They have been very good at not paying attention for decades."