With religious groups writing to the Pope and calling on him to support the Divestment campaign and take the Catholic Church’s money out of the fossil fuel industry; over 100 Harvard Professors calling on the University to do the same; and a brewing movement in the US – led by 350.org – to call on all institutions to do the same, the spotlight is now on institutions to think carefully about where their wealth is invested.
Typically the debate around fossil fuel investment has focused on the government subsidies that continue to support the industry. Campaigners, policy makers, and activists alike have consistently called on governments and global bodies such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to either eliminate or at the very least begin the transition away from fossil fuel subsides. Thus far, these messages have received tepid responses and little movement towards implementing such proposals.
That the fossil fuel industry is propped up by government subsidies, and that there is too little political will to implement policies that will see the end (sooner or later) of such financial support, is hardly breaking news. Campaigners across the globe continue to face an uphill struggle to influence government policies when they are pitched against the lobbying of coal, oil, and other fossil fuel giants whose might is well established and whose tactics are highly effective.
For this reason, the likes of 350.org and the student movement in the US, have taken a different approach to firstly shining the spotlight on the issue; and secondly working on achieving their goals, namely: a fossil fuel free democracy. They have leveraged their influence to not focus on governments and regulators, but instead turn attention to the big institutions that count the fossil fuel industry as key recipients of not just their endowments and investments, but also their ‘support’ in its broader sense.
In targeting Church, pension, and other institutional wealth funds the divestment movement taps into a philosophy that governments have all but consigned to the rubbish bin of history: long-termism. Unlike short-term elected governments that fetishise thinking in four-five year cycles, institutional wealth fund managers remain both willing and able to focus their attention and decision-making on much longer-term horizons.
Given that pension fund holders have a duty to think about investing in the best interest of their beneficiaries in perpetuity they will necessarily be more concerned about their portfolios being tied up in industries with stranded assets, than a government too busy focusing on the next election campaign. And the same is true for other institutional wealth fund managers that have the interests of generations after generations of e.g. students, academics, and church-goers benefiting from their well-managed assets and wealth.
With pressure being applied to such institutions, and the campaign successfully raising the public awareness levels around the issues, the divestment campaign is gaining ground. What it needs to now be coupled with is the compelling message that once that money – that wealth – is shifted out of the pre-historic fossil fuel industry it can be invested into clean and safe energy sources. The renewable and clean tech industry is still in need of major funding to scale it to the levels required to transform our economies so that they are both resilient and truly sustainable, securing our energy needs, and releasing governments from the stranglehold of the fossil fuel lobby.
If we are going to undergo the transformation to both mitigate against, and adapt to, the worst threats of climate change; and to secure our beautiful, vibrant, and flourishing future for generations to come we must do more than divest from the past; we must invest in the future.