Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Divestment

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The Guardian is currently running a campaign to try to get the Bill Gates and Wellcome Foundations to divest from fossil fuels. This is running concurrently with other campaigns to try to get institutions to divest including Harvard University. Yesterday the Guardian’s campaign included a tweetstorm, and I got an email from Alan Rusbridger suggesting I write to one of the directors of the Wellcome Trust to explain why I thought divestment is a Good Idea. In fact this idea came from the people who had signed up to the Guardian’s petition who thought that individual letters might be more persuasive than just signatures.

The Guardian is, of course, owned by a Trust, which is why it can be independent. And they have already divested. As have I. Here is some of what I wrote to the Chair of the Wellcome Trust.

As a former non-executive member of the board of BP, I sure you recall when that organisation called itself “Beyond Petroleum”. I wonder if you share the great disappointment many of us felt when that approach was abandoned. In retirement, I have an investment portfolio, managed by professional brokers and owned by one of the big Canadian banks. I have been talking to them about the importance of divestment from fossil fuels. I was particularly concerned that my fund manager seemed completely unaware of the investment opportunities in renewable technologies such as wind and solar power generation. I have also been very much aware that many of the companies my funds were invested in were supporting climate change denial and through the activities of people like the Koch brothers, who are heavily invested in the Alberta tar sands, actively working to frustrate changes to cleaner technologies. I have divested my funds from pipelines and fossil fuel power generation  companies and instructed my brokers to buy stock in cleaner energy companies. I think that this has had the useful effect of changing my broker’s range of reading materials, and not focussing so closely on short term market fluctuations.

In Vancouver we are currently fighting against expansions of port facilities to allow for more export of diluted bitumen. Our provincial government is encouraging the expansion of LNG exports by reducing taxes and royalties in an attempt to make financially dubious investments look more attractive. A recent fuel oil spill in the harbour here has concentrated attention on how ill equipped we would be to deal with a dilbit spill on our coast, especially in view on ongoing cut backs by the Canadian government in our Coast Guard. I am sure your experience of the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster must make you concerned too about the threat that increased oil exploration and exploitation poses to all life on earth. 

I am sure by now you will have read the following paragraph many times. Please take the time to read it again. 

“Your organisations have made a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects. Yet your investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions. Climate change poses a real threat to all of us, and it is morally and financially misguided to invest in companies dedicated to finding and burning more oil, gas and coal. Many philanthropic organisations are divesting their endowments from fossil fuels. We ask you to do the same: to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies.”

Thank you for reading my note. I hope the Wellcome Trust will divest from fossil fuels, as so many other academic organisations are doing.

I do not expect that he will change his mind just because he reads my letter. In fact I already have had a response which you can read here. I think it probably reflects the fact that this is an organisation based in the UK, where there is not quite the same direct influence of corporate funding of politics as there is now in the United States thanks to Citizens United. I also do not believe that Shell, BP and Koch Industries (and so on) are run by “fair minded people”. Quite the contrary. I think that they are using the funds invested in their companies to defeat any serious efforts to change the current trajectory of increasing fossil fuel consumption. The possibility of there being some significant shift at the upcoming Paris conference must be alarming them as they hold huge amounts of what will become stranded assets – essentially valueless – if there is a determined move to limit fossil fuel extraction.

I hope that as a reader of this blog you too will consider what you can do to help towards reducing the use of fossil fuels – transit expansion and better land use being two of the most effective. If you are an alumnus, and you get the steady stream of begging emails that I do from your alma mata, perhaps you too can add your voice, or sign up to the Guardian’s campaign. Individually we probably will have an infinitesimal impact: but collectively it will be a mighty roar, that will be hard to ignore. I hope so, for all our sakes.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2015 at 2:21 pm

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