Go Fossil Free – The Climate, Divestment, and You
Climate change is the biggest issue of our generation, and will be the defining topic of the century. Our children and grandchildren will ask us: “What did you do?”
The science is unequivocal. The debate is over. There should be no shame or anger at those who were skeptical or doubtful. The only question now is how bad will the reality be, and what can we do to mitigate it.
(Unless otherwise stated, all figures reference the IPCC 5th Assessment Report)
We are already seeing the effects of a 0.85°C rise in average global temperature: more extreme weather, flooding, drought, changes to biodiversity, and all of the social and economic consequences that they bring. We are locked in to at least another 0.8°C rise even if we were to stop all emissions today, and with every day we are committing ourselves to more. We have no idea what a world that is 4 or 6 degrees warmer than pre-industrial temperatures will look like, although it is likely to be catastrophic. We’re creating a different planet that life on earth as it exists today is not adapted to. It doesn’t have to be that way.
For good people looking for ways to live a positive and meaningful life, there is no bigger issue to dedicate your time and energy toward. Nothing even comes close. War, famine, poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, natural disasters – almost every social, political, or environmental cause that most people care about is due to be exacerbated by climate change, if it isn’t being made worse by it already.
But how, as individuals, can we make a difference? This is an enormous problem, and the barriers and obstacles to the obvious solutions are seemingly so vast and insurmountable that contemplating how to respond as an individual can feel overwhelming, dis-empowering, dispiriting. Those of us who re-use our plastic bags out of something more than a desire to be fashionable know deep down that our own commitments to eating less meat, driving and flying less, buying less crap, and conserving energy at home, amount to little more than a few elderly ants pissing into a super-charged hurricane. Divestment campaigns could help us cross the streams.
We have watched those in power ignore, misrepresent, and lie about the science for close to three decades. A few years ago it seemed as though political leaders in the west were starting to get the message, and the green movement was beginning to gain support and credibility, and to lose some of the stigma attached to it. Since then, the US, Canada, Australia, and my own tax receiving government, the UK, have not only turned back the clock on that progress, but have launched aggressively anti-environment, anti-climate, anti-common-sense, anti-social policies, pulling the rug out from under the feet of the emerging renewable energy industry, investing in fracking and tar sands and open pit coal mines, and making it absolutely clear which industries are pulling the strings. Our politics has been well and truly sold.
And make no mistake, this is no death rattle. If these governments and the corporations they are serving are allowed to burn the planet, they will. The staggering amount of money to be made in the short term is just too great, and the people at the top know that they won’t have to pay the bill.
But 2014 feels as though it might be the year that public opinion turns. The floods in the UK, the droughts in America and Australia, and the publication of the 5th Assessment Report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has the strongest language yet, and which states that the predictions of the previous four reports were far too conservative: events seem to be coming to a head. People are seeing the reality of climate change and are connecting the dots, and there is an anger brewing amid the scientific community that is no longer allowing the same old myths to be repeated. I am also extremely hopeful that the new Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously“, is going to open the door for those Americans who have self-identified as skeptics because of their religious or political beliefs to join the conversation, and I think that could be a huge turning point in the conversation.
Turning point or not, for those of us already committed, this will be a long fight. So where, and how, should we start?
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, and the Go Fossil Free campaign sky-rocketed to prominence with his article in Rolling Stone magazine called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“. The article has three numbers: 2°Celcius, 565 Gigatons, and 2,795 Gigatons. These are three numbers that make you understand the seriousness of our situation.
First, 2°C is the limit to global average temperature rise that almost every single nation on the planet agreed we should not exceed at the Copenhagen climate conference back in 2009. As I already said, we’re locked into 1.6°C warming because the climate does’t respond to changes in the atmosphere immediately, and the warming effect of the greenhouse gases that we’ve already emitted into the atmosphere will continue even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels right now. And just to be clear, parts of the world will warm much more than 2°C (it’s a global average) and nobody is saying that 2°C warming is going to be fine: we’re still going to have more extreme weather, our oceans (already 30% more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution) will suffer, especially in tropical regions, the ice sheets will continue to melt and sea levels will rise. A rise of 2°C is still going to be bad – it’s just much, much less bad than a rise of 4-6°C (for a very dry but interesting talk about why we’re talking about 2°C and not 1.5°C, go here).
Second, 565 Gigatons is the scientific community’s best estimate at the amount of CO2 that could be released into the atmosphere if we want to stay below a 2°C rise in global average temperature. It’s become known as the Carbon Budget – how much we’ve got left to spend. This number was first calculated by economists and environmentalists who wanted to demonstrate to the financial markets that investments in the fossil fuel industry are risky, because the value of those investments is based on the future profits of the proven coal, gas, and oil reserves that are owned but yet to be exploited by the companies you are investing in. What if those reserves can’t be exploited? What if the international community makes it illegal or economically unviable to exploit those resources? The value of your investments would plummet.
So if we can only use 565 Gigatons of carbon in order to stay under 2°C, just how much carbon do we have, right now, at our disposal? The answer: 2,795 Gigatons. That is the total carbon already contained in proven coal, gas and oil reserves around the world, and in case you hadn’t noticed, that number is 5 times higher than the 565 Gigatons that we can release if we want to stand a chance of staying below an average rise of 2°C. If you use current trends to project into the future it’s easy to see that we will reach that number by the year 2020. That means that unless we make fast and dramatic changes to how we generate and consume energy, then in 6 years we will be committed to a global average temperature rise of 2°C, and will be on track for a 4-6°C rise by 2100. (Check out the Carbon Tracker Initiative report, ‘Unburnable Carbon’ for more on these numbers)
To give you a sense of the reaction by those in the fossil fuel industry to this really sobering news: even the biggest, richest companies are still investing huge amounts of money into seeking out new reserves, fully aware that burning everything we have already found would be cataclysmic. According to McKibben, Exxon Mobil told Wall Street analysts that they would spend $100 million a day on the hunt for more oil and gas through 2016. If you thought bankers were sociopathic, I’m not sure how we politely categorise people who are capable of this sort of action. Homicidal maniacs? Mass murderers? Do we need an environmental equivalent to the Hague to try the worst of the environmental criminals for ecocide? I think that day may indeed come.
Anyway, as I said, at the current rate of consumption we will reach the 565 Gigaton mark in 2020. That gives us just a few years to act because there is no way we’re going to turn off our emissions overnight. At the moment global emissions are increasing by roughly 3% a year, so we need a global slow down in emissions leading up to 2020 followed by a year on year decrease in emissions of about 3% if we want to have even a chance of hitting that 2°C target. If that fact doesn’t make you want to do more than re-use your plastic bags then I suggest you visit a psychoanalyst for treatment.
Divestment Campaigns: Go Fossil Free
Go Fossil Free is a simple strategy that mimics the successful divestment campaign that changed the course of South African history during the apartheid era. Put simply, we pressure public and private institutions to take their investments out of the fossil fuel industry, with a particular focus on high profile institutions such as universities that also provide a veneer of respectability to the companies in the industry.
Let me give you an example. I believe the University of Exeter is a fantastic university. I graduated from one of my degrees there in 2010, in Environmental Studies. The university has a Conservation and Biodiversity program, a Climate Change program, it offers a unique One Planet MBA in partnership with the WWF. While I was there, it sponsored my conservation expeditions that led to the establishment of the charity I now run, the Heart of Borneo Rainforest Foundation, and I now organise one of their conservation biology student field trips, also to Borneo, where students learn about fieldwork and the complexities of reducing deforestation.
Deforestation in Indonesia accounts for 6-8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. One of the big drivers of deforestation in Indonesian Borneo is clear felling for coal extraction, which is due to expand massively over the coming years. The triple whammy of biodiversity loss and massive environmental damage, social upheaval, and climate change from the extraction of coal from underneath rainforests in Borneo is one of the outrages of our time, and is being coordinated by many of the biggest companies in the fossil fuel industry, such as BHP Billiton. The University of Exeter, through JPMorgan, is funding and profiting from this destruction, while on the other hand is teaching and and conducting research on climate change, conservation, and ethical business, and through ventures such as mine is publicly promoting efforts to conserve. The hypocrisy needs to be exposed and stopped.
According to People and Planet, UK universities invest up to £6.6billion in the fossil fuel industry. The message is that if it’s wrong to wreck the environment and peoples lives, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. Moreover, it’s wrong to give a veneer of respectability to these companies through official association with institutions that are supposed to be the bastions of education and forward thinking. Go Fossil Free uses the language of a ‘social license’. What they mean, as I see it, is that the time has come to shame this industry, and that investing institutions and individuals – including those working in it – felt that shame. This industry is the tobacco industry on steroids. No university in the UK invests in the tobacco industry now: the same needs to happen to the fossil fuel industry.
This campaign can be effective. In just over a year, the US campaign saw 44 organisations and cities (entire cities!) pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry.
The campaign aims are:
- MOVE THE MONEY
- Screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from your investment portfolio
- Immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies
- Divest from the fossil fuel industry and shift funds to lower risk, ethical investments within 5 years
- STOP THE GREENWASH
- Publish full details of their financial and other ties to the fossil fuel industry
- Stop giving out honorary degrees to fossil fuel industry CEOs (and start giving more to real leaders!)
- Stop accepting sponsorship and advertising from fossil fuel companies
- SUPPORT A CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE FOR ALL
- Provide ethical careers advice and opportunities
- Refocus research and expertise on climate solutions and phase out climate-damaging fossil fuel research
- Demand more research funding for renewables from fossil fuel companies and renewables
So how do you get involved?
Think about the institutions you are or have been involved with – universities, churches, membership organisations – and choose one. Choose the one you will be most passionate about either because of the size of its portfolio investment or the strength of your connection to it, and get active. Get fucking active. This is not about just signing a petition. You have a moral responsibility to do more. If you’re reading this far in an obscure blog post without an Osbourne-esque sneer on your face you have a moral responsibility to do more.
In our old age, no matter what the outcome, let’s be able to look our kids and grandkids in the eyes and say, “We tried. I tried”. If they ask us how and all we can say is that we reused our plastic bags, they’ll probably laugh with contempt and walk off in disgust. I would. We know the situation. Ignorance is not an excuse. We have the moral duty, and the moral authority, to take, and to demand action.
Where do you start?
Read the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report here
Read the latest IPCC Mitigation Report that makes it clear just how affordable it is to make the changes we need
If you’re based in the UK like me then People and Planet are leading the charge, especially against universities.
Go here to see existing UK university campaigns – if your institution is there, sign the petition and get more involved. If not, email P&P and they will help get you started.
Go here for a whole bunch of resources including reports, campaign advice, design templates etc. to help get you started.
If you’re not targeting a university, or you’re in the US or somewhere else in the world, then the Go Fossil Free website is probably the best place for you to start your campaign
Take into account that it might take a few years to get this institution that you have identified to agree to go fossil free, and that even after it has agreed you and others will need to make sure it fulfils its promise. That is the sort of timeline you are probably looking at. With that in mind, you should commit yourself mentally to engaging with protests, fundraising campaigns, meetings, letter writing, and hopefully other, more creative, methods to persuade this organisation to divest from easy but despicable profits.
Of course, if you or your business holds investments, you should sort those out first. I’m not a financial advisor so you should probably speak to yours.