A new way to stop climate change – go after the big polluters’ money

A traffic policeman signals to drivers during a smoggy day in Harbin

Much as most of us wish for a world without climate change, most of us are also still invested in the fossil fuels that are causing most climate change in two ways: through our personal consumption of oil, gas and coal – and through our investments fossil fuel companies via individual pension funds and investments, or community-based investments like church or social funds.

The uncomfortable truth is that our continuing emissions are already killing people – mostly, at present, African and South Asian children hit by climate impacts to the burden of disease and food security. Our collective emissions are breaking down the stable climate on which humanity’s prosperity is dependent. Despite the urgency of this situation, governments are frequently corrupted by the political spending power of the industry and have failed so far to legislate against carbon emissions, even though scientists agree climate change is an immense threat to humanity.

So if we can’t vote to stop climate change, let’s vote with our money! Fossil Free South Africa is an emerging movement for divestment in South Africa, aligned with the rapidly accelerating international divestment campaign. The South African campaign started in November 2013 when several members of staff, students and alumni wrote to the University of Cape Town, urging it to “go fossil-free”. After a year of deliberations, UCT has determined that it will switch to an ethical investment policy, and is seriously considering fossil fuel divestment. Fossil Free UCT is now part of the task team the university has appointed to manage this process.

Recent additions to the international divestment movement include the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Rockefeller philanthropies and the Guardian newspaper. These bodies join dozens of universities, and hundreds of cities, faith communities and foundations that have already committed to fossil fuel divestment.

Divestment is about making it clear that it is now ethically unacceptable to make money from damaging the very fabric of the living systems on which humanity depends. As Bill McKibben, a founding father of the campaign says, if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage. Most coal mining operations in South Africa are also linked to human rights abuses in the communities where they operate.

The uncomfortable truth is that fossil fuel companies like South Africa’s Sasol, Anglo Coal, Exxaro, Xtrata, BHP, Eskom, African Rainbow Minerals and others are now corporate criminals who must be either forced out of business or forced to change their business models. If you’re invested in these companies, and if you have a pension in South Africa, you probably are, then it’s time to start asking your pension fund trustees some tough questions.

Of course, the flip side of the case for divestment is the incredible prospects for the fast-growing wind, solar and other renewable energy industries. Take your money out of big coal, put it into big solar, says Fossil Free South Africa, as it works hard to communicate the facts about climate change, the case for divestment and the case for a cleaner, more stable and more peaceful global economy that is no longer dependent on ever-scarcer oil, gas and coal.