Divesting in the future

Adam Weymouth talks to renowned environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, about why investing in the future of the planet means divesting in the companies that are jeopardising it

A campaign to persuade investors to divest from the fossil fuel industry is the fastest growing campaign of its kind in history, according to a recent study from the University of Oxford.

It was launched just a year ago by grassroots environmental organisation 350.org, following founder Bill McKibben’s much-cited piece for Rolling Stone magazine, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. The article was based upon figures released by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based group of financial analysts who, in their report Unburnable Carbon, had estimated the amount of carbon contained in the oil, coal and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies to be 2,795 gigatons. This was, McKibben wrote, five times more than our permitted carbon budget – the amount of carbon we are allowed to burn if we aim to stabilise our climate below the globally agreed two degree rise.

The discovery of the figures had taken him by surprise, he tells Positive News: “Once you know those numbers, you know how this story ends. Unless we rewrite the script, quickly and dramatically, this story ends with those numbers.”

While those 2,795 gigatons currently remain ‘below ground’, they already determine companies’ share prices. Economically they are in play and are intended to be extracted. So it is clear, one way or another, that something has to shift.

Despite the campaign’s infancy, such stark numbers are already beginning to show their influence beyond environmental circles. HSBC, the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, to name but a few, have all recognised the economic risks of fossil fuel companies having assets in their portfolios which have the potential of becoming stranded – a stranded asset being one which has lost its economic value due to an unanticipated or premature write-off.

With the double-pronged argument of environmental ruin and financial risk, the movement is rapidly gathering pace. Following its wide-ranging take-up in the US by institutions including colleges, cities and religious denominations, and with success also in Australia and New Zealand, 350.org has now brought its campaign to Europe. One of their initial focuses in the UK will be the £5bn that the endowment funds of UK universities currently have invested in coal, oil and gas companies, according to a report 350.org has co-authored with Platform and People & Planet.

“In the environmental movement we play defence a lot. The divestment campaign I enjoy because it feels like we’re playing offence. We’re taking it to these guys for a while”

Since his first book in 1989, McKibben has worked ceaselessly to bring the issues surrounding climate change to public attention. Yet even for someone that has been in the business as long as he has, he is clearly invigorated by the possibilities of this new campaign: “The carbon bubble argument is very powerful,” he says. “And I think the math leads inevitably to a moral argument. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from it too.” Speaking in London on the last night of the Fossil Free Europe tour after a week of whistle-stop speaker events through Oslo, Berlin, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Birmingham, he hammers home those numbers and highlights how it is the business model of the fossil fuel companies that, foremost, needs to be addressed. “Companies like Exxon, or Shell, or BP, are rogue companies,” he says. “Outlaws against the laws of physics and chemistry.”

Exxon alone have 7% of the reserves necessary to take us over the two degree limit, according to McKibben. “One company, one board of directors, one CEO, can do 7% of the job of wrecking the planet for geologic time. We have two choices. Either Exxon bend, or the laws of physics and chemistry bend. It’s not going to be an easy job, but it’s going to be easier than making physics change its mind.” He left the London stage to a standing ovation.

The force of the argument shows in the support that it has already garnered. Journalist and activist Naomi Klein, speaking via video link, says: “For a long time the environmental movement behaved as if climate change was the one cause that didn’t have an enemy. But here’s the thing. We do have an enemy. We have a few of them, actually. The good news is that we know exactly who they are.”

The divestment campaign 350.org is proposing is inspired by that which contributed to bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who McKibben describes as “one of the three or four people on the face of the planet who really has earned the right to be listened to,” is also lending his support to the campaign. “The divestment movement,” Tutu said, “played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. The corporations understood the logic of money even when they weren’t swayed by the dictates of morality. Climate change is a deeply moral issue too. Once again we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.”

The tour saw Natasha Gorodnitski speak from Fossil Free UCL about the growing movement to divest on the campuses of the UK’s universities. Siobhan Grimes, of Operation Noah, talked about divestment as a spiritual issue and the importance of faith groups in taking a lead. Meanwhile, last autumn saw the Quakers become the first British Christian denomination to divest.

While the University of Oxford report, authored by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, is cautious about the direct impacts divestment could have upon the fossil fuel industry, it claims that the indirect impacts could be far-reaching. “The outcome of the stigmatisation process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison,” it states. McKibben recognises this and speaks of how although the campaign may not financially bankrupt the fossil fuel companies, it could  bankrupt them politically.

As we finish up our conversation, he adds: “In the environmental movement we play defence a lot. The divestment campaign I enjoy because it feels like we’re playing offence. We’re taking it to these guys for a while. And we’ve got to get them off balance, because these guys rule the world right now.”