28 july 2013

Climate change divestment campaigns go on the offensive

The Guardian, July 28, 2013

Australia must stop investing in carbon-intensive industries, global climate campaigners announce as they take on the fossil fuel industry

Bill McKibben, leader of the global climate action group, had barely left Australia when the Climate Commission released its report The Critical Decade 2013.

The timely report underlines much that we already know. The climate is changing and the evidence continues to strengthen. The risks we were warned about are now happening. The effects of climate change endangers our "health, property, infrastructure, agriculture and natural ecosystems". More needs to be done to stabilise the climate. And most importantly, "most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burnt if we are to stabilise the climate this century".

McKibben was in Australia at the start of June as part of the Do The Maths tour. The tour came off the back of his Rolling Stone article that reiterated the fact the globe's carbon budget was almost used up. While in Australia, McKibben appeared on the ABC's Lateline and Q & A programmes, spoke to the National Press Club, wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, and was featured in The Monthly.

The message he was spreading: Australia and the world must stop investing in carbon intensive industries:

Absolutely, and for two reasons. One is it makes no sense to pay for your retirement by investing in companies that guarantee you won't have a planet worth retiring on. And two, as we're increasingly finding out, this is a bad bet economically, this industry ... Australia's not alone in causing this problem, but it's punching above its weight because of its coal mining industry, so hopefully we can figure out how to keep it from expanding in those ways.

His argument is that sooner or later, investments in fossil fuels will become unburnable, as the 2012 Carbon Tracker Initiative report, Unburnable, explains.

As I wrote just before McKibben arrived in Australia, the new global climate campaign strategy, led by, is a divestment campaign based on the historic success of the anti-Apartheid campaign targeted at South Africa. It urges major Australian institutions with large investment portfolios, such as universities, superannuation funds and hedge funds, to sell their stocks in fossil fuel companies. Underscoring this strategy is the ambition to strip away the moral legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry.

Needless to say, the Australian Coal Association, which represents 24 black-coal miners, is unhappy with this. In April, the ACA released a report into the coal industry, which claimed that "nearly one-fifth of our economy is reliant on mining" and that size of the coal mining industry is around $43 billion. An opinion piece written by coal-funded researchers Sinclair Davidson and Ashton de Silva condemned Bill McKibben and other climate activists:

Foreigners coming to Australia to campaign against our national economy can do a lot of damage if their claims go unchallenged. So too will "uncivil" disobedience campaigns designed to sabotage local economies and cause property destruction.

Unfortunately for the Australian Coal Association, the respectable centre for debate in Australia, and elsewhere, is firmly shifting towards the recognition that we are facing a climate emergency. The "emerging consensus" is that fossil fuels, especially coal, oil and gas, are on the wrong side of a historic debate about our economy. A recent Commonwealth Bank "my wealth" article highlights this as well.

I had the opportunity to speak with McKibben about the Do The Maths tour, and his divestment campaign. I asked him why had decided to target the fossil fuel industry – McKibben himself describes the five biggest oil companies making a collective $1tn in profits since 2000 -- rather than an easier target.

"Frankly," he told me, "that's where the carbon is. These guys own the carbon reserves. Our target is the carbon, not specific companies." It just so happens that the majority of carbon reserves are controlled by a handful of companies.

In the USA, climate activists have been the target of conservative, fossil-fuel funded counter-attacks. The Koch Brothers for example, whose enormous wealth derives from their oil investments, have led the charge. The UK's Independent paper reported in January that:

Together, the two brothers have given millions of dollars to non-profit organisations that criticise environmental legislation and support lower taxes for industry.

The Kochs have also contributed vast sums to promote scepticism towards climate change, more even than the oil industry according to some estimates. Greenpeace, for instance, has calculated that ExxonMobil spent $8.9m on climate-skeptic groups between 2005 and 2008; over the same period the Koch brothers backed such groups to the tune of nearly $25m.

In Australia, the coal association and the likes of mining magnate Clive Palmer have opposed measures to price carbon. A report in The Australian showed that the ACA claimed the carbon price would "cost 4000 jobs", while News Ltd paper The Daily Telegraph wrote that Palmer "urged a rally of climate change sceptics to dig deeper into their pockets and spend more fighting the carbon tax."

McKibben had a message for the fossil fuel lobby: "We will go right at them," he told me. "We will fight them and name them."

Divestment is the key to struggle. "Divestment works well," McKibben said. "It goes on the offence."

The Climate Commission report states: "From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit." To stay below the 2°C limit, most fossil fuels reserves cannot be burned.

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