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New divestmentality

UK Government backlash could limit freedom of local authorities to make investment choices on grounds other than financial performance

The global climate movement is making a comeback. In the last two years alone it has managed to mobilise millions of people on to the streets. Over 500 institutions worldwide, with assets worth €3.5tr have committed to taking their money out of the fossil-fuel industry. The key shift has been to focus squarely on the primary cause of climate change and the principal culprits of inaction – the fossil-fuel industry. In short, the focus has shifted away from uncontrollable forces to controllable forces.

Every campaign needs a good villain. The leaked evidence that the fossil-fuel companies, such as Exxon, have colluded for decades to bury scientific evidence on climate change has been dynamite.

As far back as the late 1960s the industry knew that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming, yet this was completely ignored. The industry allowed a situation to develop where the reserves currently on the books of fossil-fuel companies are now up to five times what can safely be burnt.

As well as getting feet on the street, a key tactic of the climate movement has been to present the financial sector with the financial arguments for decarbonisation.

For some, this has been about coherence of their ethical vision with their financial position; for others it has been about reading the market signals. After the Paris Agreement, and the growing momentum to ratify the treaty, the possibility of fossil-fuel investments losing value and becoming ‘stranded assets’ is clear. Fossil fuels are becoming a risky investment.

Such a tactic has been highly effective and has challenged old stereotypes of campaigning. The movement has become more sophisticated. When it comes to climate activism, looking and talking like a city slicker doesn’t preclude activism. In fact, some of the biggest gains in recent years have come about through engaging a growing number of oil and finance industry ‘defectors’ in the campaign. Far from donning ripped jeans and t-shirts or scaling buildings, they have worked on the inside, using their professional status and image to get access and wield real influence. They have made significant gains in winning the arguments that matter on the inside.

The campaign in Ireland has been slow to get off the ground, but things are moving fast. Recent visits of global campaign leaders including Bill McKibben of, Mark Campanalle of Carbon Tracker, and, in May, Naomi Klein, have ignited new campaigning vigour in civil society. Students are at the forefront. Divestment campaigns have taken off in Trinity College, UCD, NUI Galway and Queen’s University. Maynooth has become the first university in Ireland to set out an ethical investment policy which excludes investments in fossil fuels.

Trócaire has launched the ‘burning question’ campaign calling on the Irish Government to divest the Irish Strategic Investment Fund from fossil fuels. Currently €72 million of public money is invested in some of the worst-offending companies including TransCanada, Peabody Energy and Exxon. Other linked campaigns are focused on ending future investments in the peat industry and oil exploration. The movement is diverse, energetic and growing fast.

The signs this global strategy is working are evident in the way the establishment has started to fight back. In the USA, President Obama is facing a multi-million law suit challenging his decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline on grounds of climate change. In the UK, the Conservative government is planning an unprecedented move to curtail the powers of local councils over their own investments. This is in response to campaigners, backed by the Guardian newspaper, attempting to subvert the ethics-free investment policies of local authorities.

The Conservative government has announced plans to amend the Local Government Pension Scheme Regulations 2009 “to prevent local government from choosing not to invest funds in companies involved in the arms trade, illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, tobacco industries or fossil fuels”.

If successful, this would limit the freedom of local authorities to make investment choices on grounds other than financial performance.

Such moves will not deflect campaigns. In many ways they play into their hands. Margaret Thatcher stopped councils from divesting from the South African regime in the 1980s. This only served to focus public attention on the issue and led to a significant growth in the anti-apartheid movement and its eventual success. In the face of an ethics-driven uprising against wayward corporations, history shows that there can be only one winner