Divestment will shake up climate policy paralysis

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

The window to halt runaway climate change is closing fast this decade, with world-wide emissions cuts of 50% needed by 2020, and 90% by 2050, to keep the planet at even a two-degree rise. That heating alone would lead to nearly 200 million additional deaths of Africans this century, Christian Aid estimates. If runaway methane from thawing Siberian tundra and melting Arctic ice worsen, the cuts will have to come even sooner – and deeper.

Can our civilisation face up to this? In the 2013 Pew public opinion survey, the world’s majority – 54% – identified climate as “a major threat”, the highest score in the global poll. But, in South Africa, that figure falls to 48. Where it counts most, in the top two polluting countries, the percentage of people who name climate as a major threat is just 40 in the United States and 39 in China.

Even if consciousness is rising below, global elites remain paralysed. The next major event for hot-air summitry is September 23 at the United Nations heads of state gathering in New York. More than 100?000 protesters are anticipated two days earlier. This will be followed by the formal UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summits in Lima, Peru, in November and then the literally last-gasp effort in Paris in late 2015.

These Conferences of the Parties (COPs) – fortnight-long talk shops, the 17th of which was hosted in Durban in December 2011 – are typically sabotaged by US state department negotiators, recently joined by brethren climate-denialist governments in Canada, Australia and Japan.

Recent US and European claims to be making emissions cuts are bogus in any case, because they are outsourcing large amounts of emissions to new production sources in East Asia.

Bankers wary of ecological controversy
In 2009, four other major polluters – Brazil, China, India and South Africa – signed on to a Copenhagen Accord that had promised only inadequate and voluntary emissions cuts. Indeed, at the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Brazil last month, the most substantial comment about climate change was appalling – “bearing in mind that fossil fuel remains one of the major sources of energy” – so it appears that the Brics will follow a COP negotiating strategy that they initiated five years ago.

Copenhagen represented, simply, “you pollute, we pollute, let’s call it a deal,” as climate justice writer-activist Naomi Klein accurately described the experience. Her new book, This Changes Everything, is likely to have just as powerful an impact on public opinion as did No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. Klein now blames the profit-logic of mega-corporations, not just their pocket governments, and she insists on post-capitalist climate policies.

Financial jujitsu is one way to turn capitalism against itself. Traditional bankers are increasingly wary of socioecological controversy.

Under growing pressure, even the fossil-saturated World Bank last year agreed not to do loans of the Medupi type again.

What will Eskom, Transnet and the treasury do then, to finance hundreds of billions of rands worth of carbon-intensive infrastructure? The Brics New Development Bank, making dubious promises of “inclusive sustainable development”, will be ready to lend in 2016 and Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene last month called on “Africa” (in other words, Pretoria) to line up for the first loan.

Many of us at the Fortaleza civil society counter-summit complained that no civilians aside from big business lobbyists were allowed into the official Brics deliberations to observe, lobby or make a contrary case. We all contemplated how Brics bank-financed destructive infrastructure in Africa will in turn catalyse yet more aggressive protests from dispossessed people, at a time that demonstrations by aggrieved Africans are already at a record high (even more numerous last year than in 2011, according to Agence France Press in an annual survey commissioned, tellingly, by the African Development Bank).

For example, it is likely that the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) network led by 2014 Goldman Prize winner Desmond D’Sa will formally campaign for financial sanctions if Transnet doesn’t immediately reverse course on its port-petrochemical and coal-export mega-projects.

This was a surprisingly successful threat the last time D’Sa made the same call, in February 2010, when the World Bank loaned Eskom $3.75-billion for Medupi. Thanks to SDCEA, Earthlife Africa and groundWork, intense opposition quickly emerged around the world. As a result, the bank’s executive director representing US President Barack Obama (among others) actually abstained during the vote three months later, even after heartfelt begging by then finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

Fossil fuel divestment campaign
Financial sanctions helped bring down apartheid, and are now being used by Palestine solidarity activists to great effect (and elite panic in Tel Aviv), after a Dutch pension fund disinvested from Israeli banks possessing illegal West Bank occupation branches in January. The divestment of fossil fuel stocks from major funds – even Stanford University’s endowment a few weeks ago – was stimulated by calls from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to follow our example: hitting the oppressive system in the wallet, hard.

The fossil fuel financing challenge is vast since so much money sloshes around the world, but South Africa’s $140-billion foreign debt – a ratio similar to 1985’s, having risen from $25-billion in 1994 – works in the activists’ favour, as it did 29 years ago when PW Botha gave his Rubicon speech. The country would never again be the same once the financiers began their run the next day.

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” Tutu argued in a Guardian op-ed in April. “The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Young people across the world have already begun to do something about it. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is the fastest-growing corporate campaign of its kind in history.”

Activists like D’Sa and 350.org’s Africa-Arab team leader Ferrial Adams have begun the next herd dash from fossil stocks, shares and securities: “We’ll be looking at the financial flows into and from fossil fuels, and campaign for divestment from fossil fuel infrastructure projects.”

Teaching the City of London and Wall Street financiers some common sense is one approach, as nongovernmental organisation CarbonTracker is doing to great effect. ExxonMobil was informed by SDCEA at a tense July 31 meeting that its own “unburnable carbon” reserves – a veritable “climate bubble” in financial-asset terms – mean that it’s irrational for the firm to explore for new oil off the Durban coastline. It’s impossible for it to burn the old oil (unless we’re all sunk – literally).

The company’s South Africa representative, Ross Berkoben, had nothing to say in reply, nor did his environmental consultants from ERM, except to remind SDCEA that Zuma himself had warmly endorsed deep-sea oil drilling in a Durban speech a few days earlier.

Yes, we all acknowledged the president’s climate denialism, but continued to insist that ExxonMobil should write down its fossil assets as worthless, because, if sanity finally prevails, the firm won’t be permitted to access them. Instead it should reinvest the entire revenue flow into renewables.

Concerted activist push required
It will take groups as tough as SDCEA, 350.org and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa to tackle behemoths like Transnet and ExxonMobil, and activists as dedicated and savvy as Tutu and D’Sa to make sufficient local and global links for effective solidarity. A similar David and Goliath match was won by the Treatment Action Campaign 10 years ago: versus Washington and Pretoria, Big Pharma, the World Trade Organisation and the very notion of Intellectual Property, and it can be done again.

Winning that battle raised life expectancy from 52 in 2004 to 62 today. With the threat to life posed by climate change, an even greater scale of activist intervention will be needed, especially on the African continent, which is home to most of the 400?000 people estimated to be dying annually from climate change already.

South Africa is one of the world’s great battle­grounds for this struggle. The mining/smelting/shipping corporates (whether local, Western or Brics in origin) and their Pretoria servants will learn that cutting budgets to reduce public awareness about, and state responsibility for, climate change can delay but not deter the inevitable counterattack by committed activists.

Patrick Bond informally and voluntarily advises SDCEA and Numsa, and teaches at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.

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Patrick Bond
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