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Why Bill Gates’ Position on Divesting From Fossil Fuels Is Wrong
Beginning in March 2015, The Guardian, one of the world’s most respected and influential news organizations, launched an unprecedented media advocacy campaign—it was asking the richest and largest foundation on Earth, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to remove their investments in the fossil fuel industry. With the help of divestment activists, the Guardian collected the voices of a quarter of a million people across the globe who called on the Gates Foundation to join hundreds of other foundations, institutions, pensions, churches and communities representing trillions of dollars of investments who had taken their investments out of the fossil fuel industry since the fossil fuel divestment movement began just over 3 years ago.
Gates responded by giving a rather dismissive response to divestment, so former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, 350 Seattle, Divest University of Washington and numerous other partners, including leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, launched a local Seattle-based divestment campaign in the hometown of the Gates Foundation. After volunteers delivered a 40-page rebuttal of Gates’ rejection of divestment and then persistently campaigned outside the Gates Foundation every day for over a month, Gates addressed divestment again in an interview with the Atlantic.
Gates’ response was once again disappointing—creating straw men out of the divestment movement in order to knock them down, and downplaying the remarkable prospects for a clean energy revolution. As a result, instead of aligning his investments with a clean energy future, Gates is continuing to support the very industries who are lobbying against progress on clean energy and whose business models are deeply out of line with averting the climate crisis. Perhaps not surprisingly, Exxon endorsed the billionaire's view as part of their attempt to cover up their role in spreading misinformation and holding back climate progress for which they may be held legally liable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It seems Gates is in good company …
Divest-Invest: Two Sides of the Same Coin
To Gates’ credit he got the equation partly right, when he said that “the solution is investment”—a statement he backed up by committing to double his investments in clean energy to $2 billion. However, clean energy investments are only part of the equation: we also need to wind down investments in the fossil fuel industry while breaking the fossil fuel industry’s corrupting stranglehold on politics so that we can unlock the sorts of policies, societal changes and investments needed to tackle the climate crisis. Divestment is a powerful tool in unlocking the latter half of that equation.
Of course, Gates rightfully points out that divestment alone will not solve climate change, but he creates a straw man by suggesting that anyone is advocating for divestment alone as a solution. Such all-or-nothing dichotomization is rhetorically misleading as divestment campaigners are well aware that divestment is just one tool among many needed to help push the envelope on climate action. (For instance, here in Seattle, myself and other divestment advocates are building on the social and political will created by the divestment movement to bring a carbon tax to Washington—one of Gates’ favored climate solutions, perhaps he’d care to join us?)
It is one thing to say that divestment is not the solution to climate change, but it’s another to make Gates’ claim that divestment is a “false solution” that “won’t emit less carbon” and that there is no “direct path between divesting and solving climate change.” Contrary to Gates, there is a chorus of influential and credible voices who have illustrated how divestment is an important part of aligning the financial sector with a clean energy future, and who have illustrated that the societal power it builds is an important and powerful tool in unlocking the clean energy revolution and legislation needed to help solve climate change.
We can start by asking the fossil fuel industry itself, who, despite their feeble attempts to discredit the fossil fuel divestment movement, fund bogus divestment reports and claim divestment is an ineffective strategy, have reluctantly admitted to the power of divestment. For instance, in contradiction to their PR poker face, Peabody, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, submitted a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where they admitted that by shifting perceptions around fossil fuels, spurring on restrictive legislation and driving unfavorable lending policies, divestment efforts “could significantly affect demand for [their] products and securities.”
For more divestment advice, we could also ask the researchers at Oxford University’s Stranded Assets Program, whose influential report on divestment points out that “in almost every divestment campaign [they] reviewed from adult services to Darfur, from tobacco to South Africa, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.” Their report illustrated that the political and social power that divestment builds through stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry could also “indirectly influence all investors … to go underweight on fossil fuel stocks and debt in their portfolios.”
Alternatively, we could ask those "radical" environmentalists over at HSBC bank who recently issued a research report warning investors that the fossil fuel industry is at serious and growing risk of stranded assets from climate policies and unfavorable economics, including reduced demand for fossil fuels and the rapid development of renewable energy and efficiency measures. Contrary to Gates’ claim that divestment “won’t emit less carbon,” HSBC encouraged their investors to divest from fossil fuels and argued that divestment could lead to less fossil fuel production and less emissions. According to HSBC, divestment could help “extend the carbon budget” and would create “less demand for shares and bonds [which] ultimately increases the cost of capital to companies and limits the ability to finance expensive projects, which is particularly damaging in a sector where projects are inherently long term.”
Perhaps another good place to ask for divestment advice is the financial analysts over at the 2° Investing Initiative, who pointed out that “divesting from fossil fuels is an integral piece to aligning the financial sector with a 2 degree C climate scenario.” This claim is substantiated by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which estimates that reductions in fossil fuel investments of $4.9 trillion and additional divestment away from fossil-fueled power-transmission and distribution of $1.2 trillion will be needed by 2035 if we are to achieve the internationally agreed upon 2 degree C target—beyond which (and even before which) climate change becomes truly devastating.
If, after all of this evidence, we still wanted even further affirmation that divestment was important, we could also ask the Head of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, the Head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, or the Head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, or the former Head of Shell, Mark Moody-Stuart, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Prince Charles, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, the Rockefeller Brothers, Stanford University, the University of Washington, the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Guardian Media Group, and the plethora of other influential and credible institutions and individuals who support divestment.
Finally, we can ask the philosophically-minded climate blogger David Roberts, who has adeptly highlighted that by bringing the deeply moral nature of the climate crisis to the fore, divestment activists are dramatically shifting the climate narrative. Not only are they showing that a better, cleaner, more high-tech, prosperous and just future is possible. More than that, they are making it a moral imperative to achieve that future, and illustrating quite clearly that the fossil fuel industry is on the wrong side of that moral imperative.
Whose Side Are You On?
By drawing on the sophisticated work of organizations like the Carbon Tracker Initiative and Kepler Chevereux, divestment activists having been exposing the carbon bubble to the light of day—and typically bubbles don’t do well when exposed to the sun. As the Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated, 60 - 80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed fossil fuel firms are already unburnable if we are to stand a reasonable chance of staying below the internationally agreed upon 2 degree C target—a realization which has led the British Energy Secretary Ed Davey and many others to call fossil fuels “the sub-prime assets of the future.” Looking forward, if we are to stand a reasonable chance of hitting the 2 degree C target, Kepler-Chevereux has showed that the fossil fuel industry stands to lose up to $28 trillion in revenues over just the next 20 years, and Citibank has estimated more than $100 trillion dollars by 2050.
The fossil fuel industry thus seems to be deep down a hole of potentially stranded assets, and as Bill McKibben is fond of pointing out, the number one rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging. The fossil fuel industry, however, seems to have misplaced their rulebook, because despite having more reserves than we can afford to burn, they are trying to dig us deeper into the hole of climate chaos, spending approximately 1 percent of global GDP just on developing even more new unburnable reserves. In a tragic turn of irony, that’s about the same amount of money that the IEA concluded is required to invest in the clean economy in order to stay below the 2°C target. That’s right, if we just shifted the money that’s currently being wasted on exploring and developing unnecessary new fossil fuel reserves and instead spent it on clean energy, we could avert the worst of the climate crisis.
The ‘Miracle’ of Clean Energy
As part of Gates’ rejection of divestment, he provided a misleading (Exxon endorsed) assessment of the economics of the clean energy transition (seemingly out of the pages of a fossil fuel industry misinformation handbook or his favored climate contrarian adviser Bjorn Lomborg). Gates claimed that the only way current technology could reduce global emissions is at “beyond astronomical cost,” such that a “miracle” on the level of the invention of the automobile was necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe.
While innovation and invention is certainly part of the future ahead, numerous studies from the likes of Stanford University, the Chinese National Energy Research Institute, the IPCC and many others, show that we have many of the technologies needed to transition to a clean energy future. Indeed, as the IEA points out, what we need is not a miracle, but to speed up the energy revolution that is already underway—already the market outlook for wind and solar has been “transformed,” such that “they are now the lowest-cost source of power in a number of regions.” Looking forward, solar is set to be one of the cheapest energy sources across 80 percent of the world by 2017, according to Deutsche Bank. With clean energy making such great headway, the IEA has estimated that transitioning to clean energy in line with the 2 degree C target is not only possible, but that it would result in net savings on fuel and energy costs of $71 trillion by 2050.
Not only would transitioning in line with the 2°C target save us from high fuel costs, it would also create millions of jobs, grow the economy, prevent major negative impacts on global health and development, protect clean air and water, and avert the truly astronomical costs of climate change—estimated to be as high as $3,290 trillion by 2200. While those numbers point overwhelmingly in favor of climate action, they still cannot do real justice to the devastating nature of climate change. As the UN Human Development Report estimates, climate change and other environmental disasters could push more than 3 billion people into extreme poverty by 2050 if we do not act to stem the climate crisis. That hardly seems like an outcome consistent with the Gates Foundation’s goal of helping “every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”
Despite citing sources from the likes of the IEA, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Stanford University, Gates makes it seem as if the case for divestment is based on the “self-defeating claims of some clean energy enthusiasts.” However, even if contrary to all these sources, Gates is right and we need a “miracle” in innovation to get to the 2 degree target, that’s somewhat irrelevant to the point of divestment. After all Gates also claims to believe we can get to the 2 degree target—he just believes we need a lot more innovation to get there. The question that the divestment movement is asking is this: If you believe we can hit the two degree target, why would you be investing in companies like Shell, Peabody or (their seeming allies) Exxon, whose business models entail four or five degrees of warming and who are preventing us from getting to the 2 degree target?
The Gates Foundation still has the opportunity to align their investments with the noble goals that they were founded upon: “to help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life.” However, as things stand they are currently investing and supporting companies whose business models could erase the prospects of a healthy, productive life for billions of people across the globe, especially for future generations, the poor and vulnerable the world over.
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