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Fossil fuel companies grow nervous as divestment movement grows stronger

Cross-posted from Grist

LIMA, Peru — Though fossil fuel companies may wave their hands dismissively at the divestment movement, some nervous actions of late show more concern than they let on. Consider this curious incident here in Lima, as the United Nations climate talks entered their second week. Shell’s chief climate change advisor was slated to present a panel, cosponsored by Chevron, entitled, “Why Divest from Fossil Fuels When a Future with Low-Emission Fossil Energy Use Is Already a Reality?” Except … they didn’t. Late last week, the title was quietly changed to the more innocuous, “How Can We Reconcile Climate Targets with Energy Demand Growth?”

It must have been done in a hurry because they forgot to change the web address for the event page.

How can we reconcile climate targets with energy demand growth?

The title change did nothing to placate the frontline community members and youth climate activists who flooded the event. Panelists found themselves blocked out for half an hour from the private pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association, which is sponsored by the likes of Shell and Chevron.

Shell protestGeoffrey Supran

Shell’s sponsorship of the divestment event-that-wasn’t earned the company a specially created Sly Sludge Award, presented by the Climate Action Network, an affiliation of hundreds of environmental NGOs.

As Shell’s misstep reveals, divestment has got the industry’s attention, and understandably so. The global movement calling on universities, religious institutions, cities, and states to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry is growing faster than any other in history, now spanning 697 campaigns worldwideStanford Universitythe Rockefeller Brothers Fund34 cities, and the World Council of Churches — representing over half a billion members — are among the 700 investors worth more than $50 billion who have already committed to going fossil-free. Norway is also considering divesting the country’s $840 billion sovereign wealth fund. Even the current negotiating text of the U.N. climate agreement includes a call for divestment.

The power of divestment stems not only from the act itself, but from the movement it catalyses: galvanizing a sense of generational mission in young people unyielding in their demand for an end to business-as-usual leadership. When electric utility giant NRG announced its goal of 90 percent emissions reductions by 2050 last month, the company’s chief executive, David Crane, said of divestment, “I don’t relish the idea that year after year we’re going to be graduating a couple million kids from college … with a distaste or disdain for companies like mine.”

Shell’s fumble is just the latest defense against divestment. Australian National University’s divestment announcement was met by the threat of legal action, while Sydney University’s announcement to review its investment policies led NSW Minerals Council head Stephen Galilee to go so far as to suggest that the divestment campaign might be illegal. Even ExxonMobil weighed in twice this fall, its vice president of public and government affairs, Ken Cohen, blogging that the divestment movement is “simply … out of step with reality” and “a divisive and counterproductive diversion from the search for genuine solutions.” Divestment packs a punch even at the highest levels, as is made by clear by Australian Prime Minister and coal champion Tony Abbott’s denunciation of ANU’s decision as “stupid”.

As the old adage goes, if you’re taking flak, you’re over the target.

It’s not only the divestment campaign that is tightening the screws. Government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry are also under scrutiny in Lima. Last Saturday, a new report by nonprofit Oil Change International revealed that the widely celebrated $10 billion in climate aid pledged by the world’s richest nations is a mere third of that spent subsidising fossil fuel extraction each year. “Phasing down of high carbon investments and fossil fuel subsidies” is among the measures currently under consideration by negotiators in Lima for a legally binding climate agreement in Paris next year. Last week, the Bank of England announced that it is investigating whether fossil fuel companies pose a systemic risk to financial stability.

There’s also the small matter of science. For a reasonable chance of avoiding the“severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” of climate change, two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves must never be burned. Indeed, with the U.N.’s current negotiating text going as far as to propose “full decarbonization by 2050,” ExxonMobil and Shell may cease to exist in their current forms in 35 years. Former BP boss Lord John Browne has warned that climate change poses an “existential threat” to the industry.

Under pressure from all sides, the fossil fuel lobby’s self-described “win ugly or lose pretty” tactics — based on the playbook perfected by Big Tobacco and othermerchants of doubt — are in full swing. The industry confidently misinforms our public and politicians about silver bullet “false solutions” like natural gas andcarbon capture and storage, in an effort to distract us from the reality that political and societal will — and not technology — are now the bottleneck to meaningful climate action. Thirty fossil fuel companies and trade associations, including BP America, Chevron, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, and Shell, continue to fund the anti-science disinformation factory that is the American Legislative Exchange Council. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year lobbying and donating in Washington against legislation for climate action further strangle the bottleneck.

Divestment loosens the fossil fuel industry’s grip, which is exactly why they are so afraid of it. Divestment seeks not to financially bankrupt these companies, but to morally bankrupt their business-as-usual practices and undermine the false legitimacy implied by their associations with universities, the U.N., and other respected bodies. Divestment shifts political reality to create breathing room for meaningful leadership and legislation. In the words of Climate Action Network Director Wael Hmaidan, “If politics is the art of the possible, campaigning is about changing what is possible.”

Join us on Feb. 13, when divestment advocates around the world will celebrate the first ever Global Divestment Day.

People’s Climate March: From Lima to Paris

On what felt like the hottest day thus far at COP20, hundreds took to the streets of central Lima to march in solidarity for Terra Madre. With high-waving banners, picket signs, and colorfully-clad characters on stilts, environmentalists at the People’s Climate March called for a progressive outcome this week at the United Nations climate change conference in Lima on the road to the Paris negotiations in 2015.

I marched alongside fellow SustainUS delegates, navigating what seemed to be a circuitous route imprisoning unsuspecting drivers in gridlock traffic. Even the traffic-control police appeared somewhat at a loss as they attempted to direct the crowds across the streets. The march pressed ahead through the confusion as would an inching caterpillar – slowly advancing its front, then surging ahead as the middle swells to bring forward its trailing rear. The result was an interchanging pace of painstaking shuffle and sudden sprint across eight lanes of stalled traffic.

Those of you present at the People’s Climate March (PCM) may recall the striking image of Times Square pulsing with the energy of marchers - students, activists, researchers, concerned citizens, NGOs, and families all rallying for climate justice. At present, I call New York City home and on Sunday September 21st I saw my backyard transformed into an international stage, where voices sang out for the world’s leaders to hear.

Today I marched with voices whose cry sounds from some deep place of shared pain, with eyes that have bared witness to the systematic torture of the land, and with hearts that have felt great loss. Indigenous peoples throughout South America have suffered personal and societal upheaval as climate change and human interference continue to degrade the continent’s dwindling rainforests, sensitive mountain regions, and eroding coastlines.

What will it take to for us to listen? What will it take to bring us all to the table?

In unity with the spirit of the march, I donned my People’s Climate March t-shirt customized with personal sources of inspiration. The shirt reads, “I’m marching to… grow global awareness, cultivate community, and harvest hope.”

Beyond showcasing my acute appreciation for alliteration and thematic use of food, the message points to some aims we should strive for as global citizens. In order to make positive change we need to think and act in community, and celebrate our success stories.

Too often this discourse leaves us feeling the weight of an insurmountable burden. And indeed the challenges are immense. Vulnerable communities, plants, animals, and the Earth itself have every right to cry out against the injustices laid upon them. In turn, we each have responsibility to hear those cries and do our part in alleviating injustice.

But as we work to create a more equitable world, lets celebrate each step of the way! Shifting the discourse to one of hope and inspiration seems to be a more sustainable way to march forward. And march forward we shall, all the way to Paris where we will continue to push for progressive and meaningful policy.

What Should I Have Said to Trigg Talley

What Should I Have Said to Trigg Talley?

Last Friday, the U.S. delegation met privately with American NGO observers in a small room in Zone B. No tweets, no quotes, no phones – those were the rules. The man we were all waiting to listen to was Trigg Talley, a senior State Department negotiator. When Trigg announced to the room that he wanted this meeting to be “off-the-record”, I briefly hoped that we were going to hear something apart from the typical State Department talking points on climate change. Of course, I was disappointed.

After providing relatively generic updates on the U.S. negotiating platform (mostly referring to the G2 summit agreements with China), Trigg opened the floor for questions. Some of them, he shrugged off or claimed he didn’t know enough background material. A few others, he genuinely attempted to provide an answer for. Still, his responses were clearly being politically filtered, despite his request that the meeting be “off-the-record.”

When at last it was over and the room was beginning to clear, many members of the SustainUS delegation approached Trigg with further questions. Yet when we pressured him to reveal his stance on the social discount rate, Mr. Talley simply didn’t know what that was. When we impressed upon him the importance of decarbonization by 2050, he provided us only vague affirmation of our general concerns.

Mr. Talley’s discomfort was visible. To some extent, I even empathized with the difficulty of his position. I started to ask myself – was Trigg simply a negotiator with no real interest in stopping climate change? Or was he genuine, and simply being constrained by his own office? Would one of us, if given such power, respond any differently to such questions?

Undoubtedly, Mr. Talley and others like him are being held back by a congress that refuses to believe climate change is real, by an administration that prioritizes negotiation tactics over solving a global crisis. And honestly, I didn’t believe that anything we said in that room would change those influences on his actions. So what was I to say?

People with power experience tunnel vision, if they get good enough at their job. I believe it is our right and duty as youth, to remove the blinders, or at least attempt to pry them apart. Now, more than ever, people like Trigg need us to remind them of what is really at stake. If, amongst the hundreds of decisions that he makes on a day-to-day basis, one of them is influenced by something we say, then isn’t it worth making the man uncomfortable for a little while?

I did not get to speak to Trigg Talley. If I did, I suppose it would have gone something like this:

“Mr. Talley, I believe you’re a good person. And I believe that the U.S. agreement with China represented an honest, good effort towards curbing global emissions. But sir, when it comes to climate change, we don’t get points for good effort. Nobody is going to pat humanity on the back because we tried our best. Our contributions under the G2 put us on track for a 4-6 degree increase in global temperature, which will mean droughts, desertification, ocean acidity, and worse.

Now I understand your job has political constraints, and that the same constraints that apply to you today will apply tomorrow in the ADP session. But I want you to remind yourself, every second you’re in that chair, of what is really at stake. It’s bigger than your job, it’s bigger than your country, and it’s bigger than all of us.”