Divest! A conversation with Nicolò Wojewoda

“Fossil fuel divestment” is the withdrawal of invested assets such as stocks and funds  from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels,  and an attempt to reduce climate change by “closing the money faucet” jacked into companies responsible for its aggravation. By December 2016, a total of 688 institutions and over 58,000 individuals, representing $5.5 trillion in assets worldwide, had been divested from fossil fuels, making “Fossil Fuel Divestment” the fastest-growing divestment movement in history. Leonardo DiCaprio, Bianca Jagger, Barack Obama, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Tilda Swinton are just a few of the celebrities who have  voiced support for the tactic. One of the most active organizations in the field is 350.org, the first planet-wide grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies in nearly every country of the world, and most recently led the opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. It was founded by a group of university students at Middlebury College in the U.S. and author Bill McKibben, who in 1989 wrote The End Of Nature – one of the first books on global warming for the general public. DUST met with Nicolò Wojewoda, team leader and coordinator of 350.org’s divestment campaign in Europe, in order to gain insights into a peaceful and effective instrument of environmental resistance.

With 350.org, you started organizing coordinated days of action that linked activists and organizations around the world. But the initiative for which you are most known is the world’s biggest fossil fuel divestment movement. How and where did this start?

Back at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference negotiations in Copenhagen, a large part of the climate movement focused all of its energy on getting governments to sign a fair, ambitious and binding agreement to tackle climate change. When the talks failed from that perspective, it came as a shock to realise that our politicians just won’t be the ones to save us. Any rational person would have thought that, since the scientific, economic and moral case for action couldn’t be any clearer, governments would simply have to act. When they didn’t, it was quite clear what stopped them: the enormous influence of the fossil fuel lobby, which has completely captured our political processes. The main obstacle to climate action is the fossil fuel industry.

Since then, research has shown that fossil fuel companies have the biggest responsibility for causing climate change. Just 90 companies have caused two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution. In 2013, research by Carbon Tracker in London also found that, if the carbon contained in fossil fuel companies’ existing reserves was released, it would essentially make planet Earth uninhabitable. Clearly, to avoid absolutely catastrophic changes to our climate, there is no way that all of the reserves can ever be burnt… Still, these companies continue to invest billions to find and exploit ever more coal, oil and gas.

So, already by 2011, the first divestment campaigns had sprung up at US campuses. They quickly spread across the country when Bill McKibben published an article in Rolling Stone magazine that brought the Carbon Tracker findings into the mainstream. The research was originally intended for investors to warn them of a  financial bubble, based on carbon, that could burst and leave their investments worthless. Bill transposed the research results to reflect what they mean for all of us: we have a limited carbon budget and these companies are planning to blow it big time. To have any chance for climate action, we need to take away the industry’s power to carry out their business plans. Divestment aims to do just that.

We also want to bankrupt the industry morally, getting public institutions to pull their funds out of fossil fuels and refuse to take donations and sponsorship from the industry. Every time an institution publicly breaks its ties with fossil fuel companies, we chip away at their power to carry out business. As the industry loses public acceptance, its political power to deter action on climate change wanes: The CEO of Shell recently said that he sees ‘disappearing societal acceptance’ as the biggest threat facing his company; the boss of coal lobby group Euracoal warned that the industry will be ‘hated like slave traders’.

This idea has caught on like wildfire. We’ve invited people to set up their own local campaigns wherever they are, and provided them with the tools and resources they needed to get going. In Europe, the first campaigns kicked off at universities in the UK. The movement then spread across the continent about three years ago, when we launched the campaign in Germany. Since then, over 250 campaigns have popped up in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries in Europe. We’ve come quite a long way. The capital cities of France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all publicly pledged to stop investing in fossil fuels. Across the globe, 700 institutions have made some form of divestment commitment – including universities, faith and medical institutions, cities, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune, as well as big financial players such, as Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.

Since 2011, starting from a few university campuses in the US urging their administrations to redirect fossil fuel investments to clean energy and the empowerment of those most impacted by climate change, the  divestment movement has grown globally, and at an incredible speed. How do you explain such a tremendous growth? Do you think the spread of the Internet and new technologies make this and other forms of boycott more powerful resistance tools than in the past?

According to a study by Oxford University, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history. I think that’s because it allows people everywhere to take action as part of something bigger, and because it tackles climate change straight at the root of the problem: the fossil fuel industry.

For the longest time, we have been told to take individual action to address the climate crisis. Of course we should all switch off our lightbulbs, but there has always been an intuitive sense that lowering our personal carbon footprint was inadequate given the scale of the problem, which created a sense of powerlessness. It also ignored the need to challenge the immense power of companies driving the crisis.

Divestment is a way to directly challenge the power of these companies. We’re all connected to institutions that invest in or receive money from the fossil fuel industry – from our universities, to museums, cities, pension funds, churches and sports clubs. The fact that anyone can start and win their own divestment campaign, and be part of a larger movement building a lot of momentum – this is what’s behind the dizzying speed at which divestment has spread. Of course the Internet has played an important role to spread the knowledge and buzz around the campaign, and connect divestment campaigners in different corners of the world. It can be hugely motivating to see the victories of others in your movement, and observe the tactics they’ve used.

What is the expected impact of the recent order signed by Donald Trump in favour of coal mines, marking a dramatic u-turn in US climate policies?

Trump’s executive orders are a direct attack on the health of communities and our climate, but they are set to fail. No matter what Trump does, even coal companies admit that his plans won’t bring back coal jobs. Coal just can’t compete any longer. The shift to renewable energy is unstoppable and support for climate action is at an all-time high. Trump will face resistance at every turn, from legal challenges to mass mobilisations. It’s up to all of us, the people, to take things into our own hands. Divestment offers a tool for everyone to show the kind of climate leadership that governments are lacking. It’s a way to push for change beyond the political processes co-opted and corrupted by the fossil fuel industry.

Does 350.org suggest a re-investment of one’s capital taken out of fossil-fuel-intensive funds and similar forms of investment? Does one have to renounce to some part of their profits in order to “invest clean”?

We’re not investment advisors, so we won’t be recommending specific financial products, but we believe that we must invest in a way that is consistent with our vision. So, we urge institutions to re-invest their money in ways that help in building the world we need. We’ve put together a list of principles as guidance for investments that support a regenerative economy and social justice. For example, cities could divest from big fossil fuel corporations and re-invest that money in community-controlled renewable energy projects that directly benefit citizens and the local economy.

The Church of Sweden, which re-invested in energy efficiency and renewable projects, even ended up with a better-performing portfolio. Similarly, financial consultants have calculated time and again that big investors, like the Dutch ABP pension fund to name just one, would have been better off if they had divested. Investments in fossil fuels are morally wrong and increasingly financially irresponsible as well.

* reinvestment principles: gofossilfree.org/reinvestment/

Students at some of the world’s most well-renowned universities are playing a leading role in the divest movement, correct?

Students have kickstarted the divestment campaign and have driven a lot of the energy and momentum of the movement – and they continue to do so from smaller campuses to well-renowned universities. In the UK, over a quarter of universities have committed to divest and there are campaigns across the country – at esteemed institutions, including Oxford University – which have already banned investments in coal and tar sands. At Cambridge, students and academics are outraged after executives broke with university tradition in an unprecedented step: they refused to act on a motion by the university’s governing body to divest. The battle is on.

Students have also been at the forefront of escalating their actions. In Edinburgh, for example, students staged a ten-day occupation of the university’s central management building, which pushed the university to significantly shift its position. From a flat-out refusal to divest, they agreed to pull investments out of coal and tar sands. The students continue to push for more.

One of the most recent and sensational discoveries by Divest London is that even the progressive Sadiq Khan’s London City Hall is investing millions in controversial and destructive fossil fuel projects across the world, including the Dakota Access and Kinder Morgan pipelines. And this is not an exception: many of the major financial supporters of the industry are unsuspecting public players, like city halls and universities. Some of them are even charity organizations. It looks to me that a whole other chapter in the divest battle is about publicly denouncing all private and public entities who buy and invest in fossil-fuel-intensive bank products, and not just creating a guideline list of such products. Do you also support such an aggressive strategy, one which aims to create a sort of “fossil-fuel-investor pillory”?

The Fossil Free campaign only pressures institutions to break their financial ties to fossil fuel companies – whether they’re knowingly invested in the industry or not. We demand our institutions take a stand against these companies.

We also want public institutions to re-think their approach to the money with which they’re entrusted. They have a responsibility to address systemic threats like climate change proactively. The money they are given on behalf of the public has to be invested in ways that work for the public good. In addition to climate change, institutional investors should consider the impact their investments have throughout. Some institutions that have divested from fossil fuels also banned other harmful sectors from their portfolio, such as nuclear energy and the arms industry.

According to the International Monetary Fund, public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amount globally to the staggering figure of 5.3 trillion a year, more than what is allotted for public health. Even countries known for their green agendas, like Germany, still support their coal and other Co2-intensive fossil fuel industries with huge sums of public money. Are there changes underway at the governmental level as well? If I am not mistaken, Ireland recently became the first country in the world to fully divest its sovereign wealth fund, worth over €8 billion, from coal, oil and gas.

Governments are absolutely failing us on climate change. There is a huge gap between the promises made under the Paris Climate Accord and actual governmental policies, which tend to be heavily influenced by the fossil fuel lobby and other related vested interests. We now see the most staggering example in the US, where the former CEO of Exxon has taken over the country’s foreign policy.

In light of these regressive political developments, it’s encouraging that the Irish Parliament supported the first-of-its-kind fossil fuel divestment legislation by majority vote. That’s a strong signal, and is the result of the fantastic work of divestment campaigners in Ireland.

However, we need our governments to do more. We want institutions to divest from fossil fuels because that’s the power they can exercise. Governments, on the other hand, actually have the power to keep fossil fuels in the ground. That’s what they need to be doing.

Yet, governments have to deliver on their promises they made in Paris. The Paris Agreement calls for keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C. This means no new fossil fuel projects and phasing out running operations now. Instead of subsidising a dying industry, governments need to invest to open up new, low-carbon opportunities for those currently working in the fossil fuel sector. That’s what governments need to do now – and without delay.

4. May 5-13, 2017, are going to be special days for the divestment cause. Can you give us some insights on what is going to happen, with a special focus on Europe?

During that week, Fossil Free campaigners worldwide will take action for the Global Divestment Mobilisation. There are already about 150 events registered across six continents: expect street-art guerilla actions in Taiwan, vigils by Catholic groups in Brazil and rallies at hundreds of banks in Australia.

Many actions will highlight the impacts fossil fuel investments  have on the ground. In South Africa, for example, the campaign to get Cape Town to divest will throw a spotlight on the water crisis, as the city  could run out of fresh water within the next two years! In Sweden, Divest Nobel campaigners will stage an action at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm’s Old Town, which is at high risk of flooding due to climate change.

Divest London will turn up the heat on mayor Sadiq Khan to keep his promise to divest the London pension fund. A rally will call on the Catholic diocese in Munich to ban investments in fossil fuels from its fund, worth €2.7 billion. The main square in Finland’s Turku will be the scene of a symbolic oil spill. Nurses in the UK will push for divestment at the Royal College of Nursing congress. The Louvre museum in Paris can expect an artistic performance denouncing their sponsorship deal with oil and gas major Total. And that’s just to give you a flavour.

I’m really looking forward to Global Divestment Mobilisation. It’s a great moment for us to come together as a worldwide movement and show its collective power.

 

Pubblicato su DUST#11, Maggio 2017

 

 

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