An Argument for Carbon Divestment: Desmond Tutu

April 12, 2014

Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. It was an “environmental issue” of intense interest to environmentalists and leftists and conspiracy theorists, but not much use to us.

Today, we have no excuse. None. Knowledge of climate change is no longer limited to the scientific community and environmental activist fringes. No more can it be dismissed as science fiction; we are already feeling the effects.

And once more, it is the poor who are being asked to absorb the pain for the excesses of the rich. Africans, who emit far less carbon than the people of any other continent, will pay the steepest price.


Desmond Tutu. Creative Commons

This week, scientists and public representatives gathered in Berlin are weighing up radical options for  curbing carbon emissions contained in the third report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The bottom line, a draft of the report warns, is that we have 15 years to take the necessary steps to affordably reduce emissions to attain the targeted 2°C over pre-industrial times. The horse may not have already bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door.

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. We have a responsibility to persuade the powerful and the wealthy to stop the juggernaut of earthly destruction. It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, “to till it and keep it.” To “keep” it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.

This is why, no matter where you live, the fact that the United States is even debating whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is so appalling. It is a massive investment in what we all now know is an unsustainable and destructive fossil fuel based economy. The pipeline will transport 830 000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil across the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico each day. It is estimated that producing and transporting this quantity of oil will increase Canada’s carbon emissions by more than 30 per cent.

If the negative impacts of the pipeline would affect only Canada and the United States we could say, well, good luck to them. But it will affect the whole world, our shared world, the only world we have.

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and you and you, and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility that begins in the genesis of humanity, with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, “to till it and keep it”. To “keep” it; not to abuse it, not to make as much money as possible from it, not to destroy it.

Today, governments and corporations and peoples confront similar moral dilemmas, and often find the lure of the forbidden just as irresistible as Adam did. The taste of “success” in our world gone mad is measured in Dollars and Francs and Rupees and Yen. Our desire to take out and create markets to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds.

We live in a world that is dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our earth. We continue to allow the search for prosperity – not justice or equity – to dominate our interests. We are God carriers, made for one another, dependent on each other, but we subvert the innate goodness within us. We worship money instead of the living God.

So, practically, what can we do?

Throughout my life I have believed that the only just response to injustice is what Mahatma Gandhi termed “passive resistance” and others have called non-violent struggle. During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa a passive resistance toolbox was developed containing levers such as boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Supported by our friends overseas, we were not only able to apply economic pressure on the unjust state, but also serious moral pressure.

These tools – boycotts, divestment and sanctions – work on a few different levels. They can be used by states in order to pressure other states. They can be used by corporations, such as those who stopped doing business in South Africa on moral grounds in the 1980s. And, they can be used by communities, by us so-called ordinary folk.

It is abundantly clear that those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money. They need a whole lot of gentle persuasion from the likes of us. And it need not necessarily involve trading in our cars and buying bicycles!

Here is how we do it: There are many ways that all of us can fight against climate change: by not wasting energy, for instance. But these individual measures will not, the scientists assure us, make a big enough difference in the time that physics allows for change. In addition, they’re not appropriate for most of the world’s poorest people.

People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.

We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming that are sponsored by fossil fuel energy companies. We can demand that the advertisements of energy companies carry health warnings. We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry. We can organise car-free days and other platforms to build broader societal awareness. We can ask our religious community to speak out on the issue from their various pulpits.

We can actively encourage energy companies to spend more of their resources on the development of sustainable energy products, and we can reward those companies that demonstrably do so by using their products to the exclusion of others.

We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. But we can take steps to reduce the industry’s political clout. And through the power of our collective action we can hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess.

And the good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Young people across the world have identified climate change as the biggest challenge of our time, and already begun to do something about it.

I cannot describe how it warmed the cockles of my heart to learn that the fossil fuel divestment campaign is, according to Oxford University research, the fastest growing corporate campaign of its kind in history.

Last month, the General Synod of the Church of England voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion to review its investment policy in respect of fossil fuel companies, with one bishop referring to climate change as “the great demon of our day”.

Already Anglican dioceses in the antipodes and members of the United Church of Christ in the United States have urged divestment; already some colleges and pension funds have declared that they want their investments congruent with their beliefs.

It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as stewards of Creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency that this dire situation demands.

© Desmond Tutu 2014

Published on F&O with permission

Desmond Mpilo Tutu is Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town. He was a leading proponent of the boycott and sanction campaign against apartheid South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Visit the Desmond and Leah Legacy Foundation site here.


Further reading:
UPDATED April 14: IPCC Working Group III Fifth Assessment report
F&O’s running series on Energy
F&O columnist Chris Wood on climate change effects in Canada’s North, The End of the Century is Now (subscription)
F&O’s Expert Witness series republishes Tzeporah Berman’s book excerpt, The Pointy End, on finding hope in the climate campaign (public access)
The March 31, 2014 IPCC press release is here:
A draft copy of the IPCC report summary for policy makers is here:
F&O Dispatch: Report says 90 companies cause 2/3 of climate change, past and present, by Deborah Jones


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