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Climate and Energy

The Campaign that Took Over the World: Fossil Fuel Divestment

By Danielle Paffard , Melanie Mattauch

The divestment movement has been one of the most vibrant and successful campaigns in the fight against climate change. The ripples of one of the fastest growing movements since the anti-tobacco and anti-apartheid campaigns have spread around the world – and have sparked real fear in the fossil fuel industry, which has seen investors from city councils to universities abandon their stakes in the beleaguered industry. An interview with Danielle Paffard and Melanie Mattauch from the UK and EU branches of 350.org.

The global fossil fuel divestment movement started in 2011. It has grown rapidly since, especially in the past two years – and 2015 has been a particularly good year for divestment. What is your opinion on progress so far, and where do you see the campaign going?

Melanie: The divestment movement has spread at a dizzying pace. A campaign that started at a few college campuses in the US in 2012 has since mushroomed to include faith institutions, local councils, and pension funds across the globe. To date, 450 institutions managing over $2.6 trillion have made divestment commitments, some pledging full divestment from coal, oil and gas, others making partial commitments, for instance to divest from coal or tar sands. That’s up from 180 divestment pledges in September last year. These commitments include investors from 43 countries and multiple sectors, like pension funds, health, education, philanthropy, faith and local governments. Some highlights include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune, the British Medical Association and the World Council of Churches.

Big investors are starting to move as well. In June, the Norwegian Parliament decided that the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, one of the biggest state funds in the world worth $900bn and one of the top ten investors in the global coal industry, will sell off over $8bn in coal investments.

Maybe most importantly, the divestment movement has sparked a public debate that is challenging the social license of the fossil fuel industry, thereby weakening their political power. Divestment, the carbon bubble and the fact that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground is now on the agenda of politicians, investors and well-established financial institutions like the European Central Bank or the Bank of England.

Danielle: I think the campaign is going to continue to snowball. There’s a couple of reasons for that – firstly, it’s proven to be a very effective campaign with a powerful message and one that really speaks to people. Also, because it’s decentralised in nature, it means anyone anywhere can pick it up and take it to their institution. In the UK, it started in universities, and we’re seeing an increasing number of them making commitments. More and more people are picking up on the cause and utilising the tools provided by organisations near to them. An interesting example of this is the targeting of MPs’ personal pension funds, where there is a drive to get members of parliament ahead of these crucial talks to really put their money where their mouth is on the climate change. It’s about saying, “So where is your pension invested?” to them.

Would you say the divestment movement has snowballed because individuals can take action themselves, within the framework of support provided by organisations such as 350.org?

Danielle: The whole point behind the divestment movement is grassroots action. People are taking actions themselves and it’s a really good way for organisations to lead where governments are failing. It’s a way your local church group, for example, can make a bold statement on its position on climate change and demonstrate what it’s going to do about it. I think it’s really important to show leadership across a range of sectors. The fact that there’s an opportunity for the financial sector to lead just as much as local institutions gives divestment a really broad spectrum of appeal that means it’s managing to push on several different fronts so that partnerships can form with actors one would usually consider as unlikely allies.

What have been the main challenges to the divestment movement – what kind of opposition has the movement met, and have you encountered any intimidation or scare tactics?

Melanie: We have seen a couple of ‘studies’ commissioned by the fossil fuel industry that claim investors will lose money if they divest. In Australia, the backlash has been particularly strong. For example, an Australian university that decided to divest found itself under attack from the financial press, divested companies and politicians. The Vice-Chancellor even had to spend two hours defending the decision in front of a Senate committee. If nothing else, these strong push-backs are testimony to the effectiveness of the campaign. The fossil fuel industry is really scared of what people power can do.

Danielle: There are several challenges to the divestment movement. The first one is breaking the status quo; shifting the mind frame that for years, fossil fuels have been a safe bet. They’re integrated into our society, they make up a normal part of our pensions just because they have, historically, given good returns. But categorically, this isn’t the case anymore, though changing that mind set is a big challenge. In terms of other barriers, we’re getting kickback from the fossil fuel industry and as we become more and more effective, their resistance gets firmer and firmer. We’ve seen a real increase in the number of industry-funded reports saying that divestment doesn’t work. Now that’s a measure of success – it shows we’re really having an impact. My favourite example would be from Global Divestment Day last year, where the fossil fuel industry protested by putting out its own video encouraging people not to divest, citing the apparent necessity of fossil fuels in everyday life. It was such a brilliant step for us to see them try to undermine this effort.

Do you think the presence and sponsorship of energy giants such as EDF at the COP will be likely to affect the negotiations, or is their involvement just greenwashing at its finest?

Melanie: We don’t think the fossil fuel industry should be included or involved in any way in the talks. They’re really the problem and I think they’ve made it quite clear they don’t want to be a part of the solution. Their business plans are aiming to burn through way more carbon than the planet can take – 80% more. That’s way above the two degree target. I don’t think they should have any involvement in the climate negotiations at all.

If you look at the conduct of these energy providers, Shell openly ignore the two degree target. If you look at ExxonMobil, they knew all about climate change as early as 1977, and then spent billions to discredit the science, so they don’t have any interest in retracting climate change because it’s a threat to their core business model. Unless they’re willing to come up with a plan to really change the core of their business and transform from fossil fuel to a green energy company, there’s definitely no working with them.

Danielle: Their participation in the talks absolutely amounts to greenwashing, and it shows more than ever why the divestment campaign is important because the crucial thing about the campaign is breaking the political capital of this industry so they can’t influence negotiations in any way. Obviously we expect the fossil fuel industry to be there. They’ve been doing this very well for years, but it’s what we’re trying to stop. It’s despicable that an energy provider could be sponsoring the COP – it’s the kind of greenwashing and political power that the divestment campaigns needs to be breaking and ensuring doesn’t happen. You can’t have a vested interest in our political process, it’s just not right. It’s not good for democracy, it’s not good for society, and it’s certainly not good for the environment.

Bill Gates has openly criticised the divestment movement on the question of renewables in particular, saying that the environmentalists’ claim that solar power is a suitable energy alternative is flawed as solar energy cannot currently match our energy needs. Is this a misrepresentation of what renewable energy can offer, and when, and is it a hindrance to the divestment movement?

Melanie: Climate change is not a technological problem, it is an issue of political will and power: the power the fossil fuel industry has over our political system. Scientists tell us that we do have the solutions to solve the climate crisis but we have to make drastic changes now. No one says, as Mr Gates suggests, that we should quit fossil fuels overnight. But it is clear that we need to shift investments away from the companies that are driving the climate crisis into solutions to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, which is already well underway. And, we need to make sure 80% of the fossil fuel reserves remaining underground stay there; we simply cannot burn them. It is a moral necessity to stop investing in the companies that are planning to burn five times more fossil fuel than our climate can take.

Danielle: Reports are showing again and again that there’s enough renewable energy out there to meet energy demands – it’s no small challenge, but it is possible. What we know so far is that actually, we don’t have a choice. We have to convert to renewable energy because without doing so, we will destroy the planet. It’s going to be one of the most monumental tasks that humanity has ever faced and we need all hands on deck, figuring out how to meet this challenge. No-one is saying it’s going to be easy, and personally I feel it’s a bit of a copout when institutions that need to be a part of the solution are saying it’s not possible – it doesn’t help anyone. I thoroughly disregard the situation we’re in. It’s a rejection of physical and environmental limits to say it can’t be done.

What is your assessment of the mobilisation seen so far from grassroots and civil society – will it be enough to influence a positive outcome on the negotiations, or does more need to be done?

Danielle: The mobilisation around this COP is expected to be the biggest mobilisation on climate that’s ever happened. There’s been an enormous amount of work put in to get people on the streets for the 28th and 29th of November. There’s huge energy going into preparation for it, but crucially, the mobilisation happening now is recognition that it doesn’t end with the COP process – if anything, it is just beginning. Maintaining mass pressure is going to be really important. The mobilisation at the moment looks towards the path through Paris, and asks, “How do we use this moment to build power and momentum for when the talks are finished and we go back home?’ We need to keep pushing and building on public pressure, especially in the face of the huge vested interests we know about.

Melanie: We’re planning to mobilise the European element of the divestment movement by coming to Paris, and to present as a face for people to follow and to connect – to learn from each other. We want to involve people in the broader movement and the activities that are planned around the climate negotiations, like the big actions planned for the 12th December. Where governments fail to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we’ll have a movement ready to make sure we don’t cross those red lines we’re not supposed to cross to be able to live a good life on this planet.

There’s a big coalition overseeing organisations working together in France, called Climat Coalition 21. They’re a really good example of a variety of roots and political ideologies actually working together to have a stronger impact, which is, in France, unprecedented. So I think that’s quite a good example of mobilisation – the actions that are happening, with the big marches before the COP and then with the civil disobedience plans for the end – and it’s quite remarkable that a lot of organisations that would usually not necessarily back such plans are now organising and supporting this together. That’s really a big success.

We are also working to ensure marginalised voices are heard. So for example, in Paris, during the negotiations, we want to make sure that people who are impacted by climate change first and foremost are recognised. We’re working with Pacific islanders in the South Pacific who are fighting for their homes, for example. They don’t want to be victimised and they don’t like being portrayed as victims of climate change so it’s really important for them to change this narrative and to be imperative in the appeal for climate action. There will also be different indigenous groups we’re working with – indigenous Sami who will be coming to Paris as well and different groups, from the Amazon, from Canada, etcetera. I think this is one of the biggest roles we’d like to play, not just to this continent in general, but to use our global connectivity to make sure that voices of grass-roots and voices of communities are heard.

We spoke to Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP from the Netherlands, who pointed out that, at the moment, society seems to be moving forward much faster than politicians when it comes to stopping climate change. What has the impact of the divestment movement and public momentum been on accelerating political action? Do you think it will provide a push in the right direction?

Melanie: If I have any hope for climate action then it’s because there are people pushing for it. When we look through history, big changes have happened because the people have decided it so. It’s always been social movements that have achieved big, big changes. For example, if we look at slave trade, that didn’t stop because politicians decided to stop it, that stopped because there was a huge societal movement that was pushing for it. Basically, it didn’t leave the politicians with any other choice, so I think it’s very much the same with the climate movement.

However, there has been quite a bit of political backing actually, and at different political levels as well. In some cases, we’ve had local councillors approach us when we didn’t even have campaigns and say that they support divestment and they’re now planning to get their city to divest. But also on very high levels, for example, just yesterday actually in France Segolène Royale claimed that it’s immoral to continue investing in fossil fuels, and the same with lots of others who are showing interest. At the UN level, Ban Ki Moon and Christiana Figueres, in Europe Connie Hedegaard, in the Green Party there’s a lot of support, and at the European level in September we organised a Divestment Summit in Paris to get together the European Greens, so there has been lots of political support there as well.

What are the plans for the divestment movement post-Paris? Do you already have a strategy beyond the negotiations and if so what are its main lines?

Melanie: The global network is definitely one of the big strengths of the campaign and what we’re trying to do is help connect the movement to the different local campaigns, so that anyone can take action. We all have links to institutions where we live that are also, to some extent, accountable towards us, and we can start our own campaigns there: it’s not just you, by yourself, running a campaign – you’re part of a growing movement. That’s one of the things we really want to strengthen and connect with campaigners. There’ll be something real big happening in April to follow on from Paris – something to look toward. We are still working out the kinks, but there will definitely also be workshops and so on happening between December and April to keep up and continuing to build momentum, so watch this space.

Danielle: In the UK, we will start building towards the February 14th ‘Show the Love’ movement with mobilisations across the UK for the Climate Coalition, showing support nationally for action on climate change. Straight after the negotiations, we’ll be ready to start mobilising again in the UK and building the divestment movement further. In the spring there will be the, ‘Fossil Freeze’, which will be a global moment of escalated action around fossil fuels from the ground, around April – May time.

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The Campaign that Took Over the World: Fossil Fuel Divestment

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