Campaigns to force institutions to move their money out of oil, gas and coal companies on grounds of pushing back against climate change is gaining momentum across the globe.
The fossil fuel divestment campaign, started by the US-based 350.org associated with environmentalist Bill McKibben, has begun to gain support from universities, charities, religious groups, local councils and other bodies. Since 2010, around 200 institutions have withdrawn their investments from fossil fuel firms.
These steps have been driven by “Fossil Free” student campaigns, urging universities to get their heads out of the (tar) sands and tackle climate change. Higher education bodies including Stanford University in the US, Glasgow University and the Australian National University in Canberra have decided to switch their investments. In March 2015, alumni from Oxford University occupied a college building after the university council again deferred a decision on divestment.
The United Nations body that coordinates the annual climate talks, the UNFCCC, said last month it was supporting divestment “as it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue”. The British Medical Association, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the World Council of Churches have committed themselves to some divestment . Even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, set up by one of the original oil barons in the US, has decided to divest.
The Guardian has begun a “Keep it in the Ground”campaign centred on divestment. The Guardian Media Group decided to divest its £800 million fund from fossil fuels — the largest divestment commitment to date. It has collected nearly 200,000 signatures on a petition demanding that two of the largest philanthropic health and development organisations in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the US and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, divest from fossil fuels. Activists from 350.org are also targeting the big five banks in the UK, which have £66 billion invested in oil, gas and coal extraction.
Reasons for focusing on fossil fuel firms are obvious. Research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative showed that the fossil fuel industry has proven reserves of oil, gas and coal with five times as much carbon dioxide scientists believe can be burned if the world is to remain below the 2oC threshold of dangerous climate change. More recent research by Paul Ekins and Christophe McGlade at University College London put the figure at three times the reserves. Other research by Richard Heede identified just 100 fossil fuel firms that have been responsible for two-thirds of emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution. There is an emerging consensus that these reserves are now “stranded assets” — they cannot be burned if climate change is to be tackled.
The divestment campaign therefore has a strong scientific rationale and one that the fossil fuel industry has been unable to rebut. It is also borne of an exasperation with efforts to persuade and cajole businesses to “voluntarily” change their behaviour on climate change.
Socialists should support efforts to put important sections of capital on the back foot, as they seek to profit from endangering the life of the planet. These firms continue to pump out these fuels and to explore unconventional sources such as fracking and tar sands. The divestment campaign has rightly made the links to these issues (such the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the US) and sought to expose the web of connections between them. This is a movement socialist activists need to join and add our voices in solidarity.
However the divestment campaign has some clear limitations. The campaign tends to favour one section of capital — those in renewables — at the expense of fossil fuel capital. The two forms of capital are not the same when it comes to climate change — more investment now in renewable energy, even when it is privately run, is better than the fossil fuelled status quo. But it is wrong to assume that the “renewables” section of energy capital provides the answer to tackling climate change.
Socialists have no illusions about renewable capital and neither should climate activists. The experience of the occupation of Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in 2009 is instructive. Vestas proved just as rapaciously profiteering and just as disregarding of workers’ rights as any fossil fuel firm. Switching investments to renewables may help some aspects of climate change, but it will leave the system that drives it — capitalism — intact. The answer is to bring the whole of the energy industry under collective, public ownership and democratic control. That is the best way to get a rational plan for the transformation of energy infrastructure, rather than trying to do it piecemeal via the market.
The divestment campaign does not currently raise any demands to help the millions of workers who would be displaced if the fossil fuel industry was to cease or dramatically decline in the short term. Hundreds of thousands of gas workers, oil workers and others, whether in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia and elsewhere across the globe cannot simply be sacked and told they have no livelihood. That would be a recipe for driving those workers into the arms of their bosses against the environmentalists. Better, to raise demands around the conversion of skilled work in the fossil fuel industry into other socially (and environmentally) useful production, with guarantees of jobs, retraining and benefits. The just transition approach pioneered by US trade unionist Tony Mazzocchi is apposite.
Activists often present divestment as simply a matter of ethics, about getting people (good or bad) to make more moral decisions. No doubt better values — solidarity, humanism, equality, collectivism — count for a lot. But the issue is political and the underlying cause of climate change are economic. Some capitalists no doubt believe they are good people, give money to charity, treat their immediate circle kindly and to an extent, “care” about the environment. But an idealistic boss remains a capitalist exploiter. Tackling climate change is not about making capitalists invest more ethically. It is about changing the capitalist power relations (particularly in production) that give rise to emissions and building a movement that can overturn these relations and construct equal and more ecological relations in their place.
Activists often cite the example of the anti-apartheid movement as a campaigning precedent, claiming that the divestment strategy helped to bring down the racist state in South Africa. But this is to give too much credit to the agency of business in bringing about social changes and to misread the real story. In fact militant strikes of South African workers (including many miners) brought the apartheid system to an end. All the great protest movements of the past — against slavery, for the vote, for democracy, for civil rights — had militant working class struggle at their core.
Divestment campaigners are right to target the power of fossil fuel capitalists in causing climate change. But the necessary counter-power is the organised working class, right at the heart of production, with both the capacity and the interest to take on capital of all stripes and to replace the current, irrational system of energy production with a rational, planned, socially and environmentally just system consistent with climate goals.