Danielle Paffard is the Fossil Free Divestment Campaigner for 350.org, working to co-ordinate and support the flourishing divestment efforts in the UK. She is the chair of Move Your Money, and has been involved in campaigns around environment and social justice issues including UK Uncut and No Dash for Gas.
Fossil Fuel Divestment came about as a solidarity tactic when students at Swarthmore College saw the devastating effects of mountaintop removal in the Appalachian mountains – horrific destruction caused by a company their own University was investing in.
Since then, the fossil fuel divestment movement has risen to challenge the entire fossil fuel industry – an industry that holds in its reserves five times more carbon than it would ever be safe to burn and maintain a safe climate, and lobbying very hard to keep it that way.
The movement spread from universities around the world, to local government, to health and faith communities strongly speaking out against the fossil fuel industry’s practices and demanding action on climate change.
The first argument is moral. If you care about our changing climate, and back action to maintain atmospheric conditions to roughly those in which civilisation evolved, it is illogical to invest in and align your interests with the one industry on the planet doing the most to undermine those efforts. If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. The maths of climate change – of carbon budgets, of reserves the industry intends to burn – very clearly sets the fossil fuel industry as public enemy number one for a habitable planet. Institutions need to make sure they are standing on the right side of history.
The second argument is financial. In a world where we meet our global recognised carbon budget and climate limit of 2degrees temperature increase, 80% of currently known fossil fuel reserves – which have already been factored into fossil fuel companies share prices – will become unburnable. It means that currently fossil fuel shares are enormously overvalued, and could leave investors with significant stranded assets, making fossil fuels an unattractive option financially.
From Tobacco to South African apartheid – time and again divestment has proved an effective tactic to bring about change. While it may not financially bankrupt the industry, it works to politically bankrupt them – to break the carefully constructed ‘social license’ that allows them to bend the ears of politicians, and sit around the negotiating table when carbon-limiting legislation is drawn up.
If winning on climate change was about science, or ‘doing the right thing’, we would have won a long time ago. But it’s not – it’s about power – something the fossil fuel industry currently has a lot of. Until we break the political, economic and cultural strangle-hold of this industry – the most profitable on earth – and fundamentally challenge it by meaningful climate legislation – we aren’t going to get anywhere.
Public divestment by institutions across the world is a powerful way for organisations to show leadership on climate change, delegitimise the fossil fuel lobby and set us on a path to climate solutions. Alongside the political mechanisms of divestment, there are powerful options to ‘re-invest’ and channel capital into climate action.
By September 2014, 181 institutions and over 600 individuals with an assed base of $50 billion had committed to divest. Amongst them is the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation – heirs of the Rockefeller fortune and birthplace of the fossil fuel industry itself – taking a clear stand and showing fossil fuels are a technology of the past.
In the UK the movement is rapidly growing. Brighthelm was the first UK church to divest, alongside a large number of faith groups internationally – including the World Council of Churches representing half a billion Christians – and the Quakers nationally. Since then Glasgow University became the first European university to divest; Oxford and Bristol City Councils came on board, as did the prestigious British Medical Association.
The recent Global Divestment Day saw 45 events and actions in the UK – part of 450 globally in 60 different countries.
In financial circles, divestment is starting to make a stir. The Carbon Bubble, stranded assets and climate risk are increasingly recognised amongst financial institutions, including the Bank of England. Some choice quotes:
Kevin Bourne, FTSE managing director: “This is one of the fastest-moving debates I think I’ve seen in my 30 years in markets.”
Oxford Smith School: “The stigmatisation process…poses the most far reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy supply chain.”
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