Suzuki and Hanington nail it, and why we need fossil fuel divestment to combat climate change

Adam Davidson-Harden

David Suzuki and Ian Hanington’s recent book Just Cool It! is another book, like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything – that really ought to be required reading for any global citizen, and especially, one might hope, any political leader or decision-maker in business or, of course, investments and pensions.

One of the central ‘take-home’ messages of these two books is that our economic system must change if we are to have a hope of mitigating climate change, for the good of humanity and other species.  The system is rigged to put profit above all other concerns, and as long as that remains the case, we’ve got a huge problem.  Myopia (with no offence meant to nearsighted people!) and greed are hard-wired into capitalism, and we have to get out of business as usual before it’s too late to change course.

I’ve taken the liberty of inserting the relevant pages from Suzuki and Hanington into this post.  They agree that divestment is a useful tool.  There continue to be some voices out there that look down on divestment, as evidenced in this article from last winter.  There are many quirks and contradictions in this particular article, and I won’t bother refuting them in depth, though I will suggest that a focus on nonviolent tactics should always be our goal.  One of the main recurring arguments against divestment is that divesting doesn’t accomplish anything, when fossil fuel shares will simply be purchased by another entity.  This argument misses the point, however, on a couple of levels.   To say the divestment movement targeting South African apartheid – or oppressive Israeli military occupation in Palestine – was, or is ineffective, simply because other investors will buy divested holdings tied to these outrageously unjust situations, is simply a moral cop-out.  Climate change, justice for indigenous peoples, a living wage, oppression in Israel-Palestine, women’s rights, queer rights – all of these causes need us to open all of the options in our activist toolkits to take action.  Thinking of climate change in particular, we need every tool available to wage the type of mass cultural struggle that is necessary to attempt to effect change.  We need to think about divestment as one tool in a broader toolkit for nonviolent action.  We need all the tools we can muster to wage this struggle.  As a broader and separate conversation, I do believe the question of the efficacy of tactics is critical.  I would prioritize two central criteria to gauge the efficacy of any tactics for mass movement building for social and ecological justice, namely nonviolence and the capacity of chosen tactics to contribute to mass movement-building.  These ideas require a separate essay to address, but a powerful argument can be made for divestment relating to the second of these criteria.  Divestment is not simply an economic tactic – reading it as such is missing the point.  It is rather a movement-building tactic.  It is essentially a tool for public education and consciousness-raising, more than, or even rather than an economic ‘weapon’ per se.  We need to engage the global citizenry about the urgency of climate action, and divestment is one way we can do that, since most of us in the global north, and beyond, are tied to the capitalist system of fossil fuel-based profiteering.

This point brings us back to the ethical dimension not taking action on climate.  Regarding pensions and endowments, we must agree that it is simply wrong for to base a retirement security for workers, or the profitability of investments, on ecological degradation and climate change.  This alone provides reason enough to divest, and that is the basis of the brief I authored to anchor the Educators Climate Alliance campaign for the OTPP and other public institutional investments to get on board with fossil divestment.

As Suzuki and Hanington, and many others have continued to point out, fossil fuels are not the best future for investment security. Whether understood through the lens of ‘stranded assets’ or ‘carbon risks’, this argument stresses that with a post carbon future inevitably ahead, fossil fuels are a risky bet.  Many even point out that decarbonized portfolios are posting better results that their carbonized counterparts.  The Montreal Pledge has been a successful movement to bring institutional investors on board to voluntarily decarbonize investments and disclose their ‘carbon risk’.

If we pretend institutional investments aren’t part of the problem, and cannot be used as vehicles to create increased pressure for climate action, then I suppose we could ignore divestment as a tactic.  As it is, and considering the importance of institutional investments such as pensions to the functioning of global capitalism, we need divestment as a tactic.

There’s capitalism cropping up again.  While we pressure for divestment from whatever personal circumstance we live in – through our pensions, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, university endowments, etc., we do need to keep our eye on the larger stakes, as Klein, Suzuki and Hanington take care to remind us.  Institutional investments are part and parcel of a system that breeds zero accountability to the climate, or to anything else, like workers’ rights, indigenous rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, water, you name it.  The definition of ‘fiduciary’ duty to shareholders’ is based on the principle of high returns and profits only as the benchmark for meeting that duty.  This has to change, despite European activists’ attempts to harness the concept of fiduciary duty as a tool to press for fossil fuel divestment.

Ultimately, we don’t just need decarbonized investments – we need a decarbonized economy, and we need effective and deep democractic control and planning of our economies to do that.  We need progressive regulations, taxes and programs that draw down fossil fuel use in energy, transportation and foods, and scale up sustainable energies for these key parts of human civilization.

Yes, we need divestment, and we need it to be a part of a mass movement that can press for effective action.  We need to press our political parties to adopt radical policies that can push for effective climate action, away from failed carbon offsets and cap-and-trade schemes.

We need to do all of this, together, for ourselves and for future generations, and we need to keep thinking of creative ways to educate and engage more and more people to inspire others to take action.

Thank you David, Ian and Naomi for reminding us of all of this, and for inspiring us to keep the struggle alive.

*The author thanks Brian Young of Toronto 350 for feedback on this article.




Jeff Rubin: The Case for Divesting from Fossil Fuels in Canada

Watch Jeff Rubin’s public lecture on divestment from fossil fuels hosted by Divest Waterloo and the Centre for International Governance Innovation on May 11.

Jeff Rubin is a CIGI senior fellow, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, and thought leader on the economics of energy sources.

Talk begins at about the 8 min mark:

Musings on the major anti-divestment arguments

by Andrea Loken, ECA co-founder and President OSSTF Limestone Teachers

1. If we don’t invest in fossil fuels, someone else will.

This is sort of like Stephen Harper’s argument for Canada’s opposition to ambitious climate targets at the UN climate talks – unless the big players like US and China were going to do it, Canada wouldn’t bother. He argued that Canada’s contributions to carbon emissions aren’t significant on the global scale, absolving us of responsibility.

Mental health/control freak tip: You can’t control what others do. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it for Indigenous communities whose rights are violated. Do it for future generations so they might inherit a livable planet.

2. Divesting won’t hurt fossil fuel companies.

Ronald McDonald probably won’t be hurt if I don’t eat Big Macs either, but it doesn’t mean I should eat them if I don’t want to. I DON’T WANT A BIG MAC.

3. We will lose money.

It’s possible, but… [Sarcasm alert:] That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I close my eyes and see the pictures of police hosing down Indigenous People and other land defenders with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures at Standing Rock last November.

Hmmm. Money or Indigenous rights? Money or water? Hmmm…

OR consider this: We might NOT lose money. We might lose money if we remain invested in fossil fuels. Last year a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives indicated that the OTPP lost nearly $1.8 billion and OMERS lost $192 million in the 2014 oil price shock. Here is the report:

CCPA: Pension Funds and Fossil Fuels: The Economic Case for Divestment (2015)

Another useful report can be found here:

Carbon Tracker: Lost in Transition: How the energy sector is missing potential demand destruction (2015)

4. Engagement with fossil fuel companies is a better strategy.

Maybe. But I don’t believe it. First, because according to strong science, we only have a carbon budget of about 500 gigatons – about 15 years – to transition off fossil fuels to maintain a livable planet []. In other words, at least 80% of known reserves have to remain in the ground. How do you engage with a fossil fuel corporation on that premise? There is no ‘good’ way to burn unburnable carbon. And 15 years?! We don’t have time to engage! Secondly, this isn’t an either/or argument. We can engage away while we have ownership. Engage and tell the fossil fuel giants to stop hiding the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.

The time to act is now. Any how. Any way. We need to make a shift. We have all the technology we need to make the transition. Let’s take into our own hands that which we can. We don’t have to invest in fossil fuels.  We don’t have to support corporations which are notorious for abuse of Indigenous rights. We have a choice.


Is the fossil fuel industry ignoring risks of declining demand?

Read the whole article from by Ben Adler – October 28, 2015:

Fossil fuel companies aren’t just bad for the climate — they’re bad investments

“The Carbon Tracker Initiative, an energy industry research group, published a landmark report on this in 2011, which inspired the divestment movement. Now the group is out with a new report,  “Lost in Transition: How the energy sector is missing potential demand destruction,” comparing published fossil fuel industry scenarios to financial market research. Carbon Tracker finds that the industry is ignoring risks of declining demand.”

Teachers urge $175 billion pension fund to flex muscle on climate change

Thank you to Riley Sparks for his story in the National Observer.

We have addressed some of the arguments raised by the OTPP in various blog posts:

Engagement vs Divestment: Questioning OTPP’s strategy

Courage from the Earth Defenders at Standing Rock

Divestment: A necessary and powerful tool

Why divestment if, arguably, it won’t hurt fossil fuel companies?

Thank you AMPA 2017, but the divestment conversation is not over

OSSTF, divestment and decolonization

By Andrea Loken, ECA co-founder

Thank you so much to AMPA 2017 for taking time to debate the divestment of OSSTF’s Internal Investment Fund. Despite debate being cut a little short [IMHO], many good points were made and some good questions asked. The motion to divest internal investments did not pass. Other motions regarding OTPP and OMERS divestment did not get to the floor. But this is only the beginning of the conversation.

While there is a global fossil-fuel divestment movement spear-headed by Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben in response to the climate crisis, my ninety second opening argument for divestment focused on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The issues are deeply interconnected, of course, but OSSTF leaders speaking against divestment refused to comment on the human rights argument.

OSSTF now has an Indigenous land acknowledgement statement to open meetings. As Canadians discover the truth about the history of our country through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are making these small gestures and beginning the conversation so desperately needed to move forward as a country. If we truly appreciate what this land acknowledgement means, we need to begin to think about what “sharing” the land really means and what Reconciliation really means.

Our economic system and education system are both examples of colonization. Both are imposed systems, assumed to be the only Way, that do not recognize Indigenous ways of being or land rights. In the view of capitalism, First Nations’ rights are just a hindrance to making profit – something to be ignored if one can get away with it. At the recent Ontario Ministry of Education consultation “Deeper Conversations” I recently attended, Ministry representatives framed the education system as one designed to feed our economic system; they repeated the mantra that it is our job as educators to prepare students to be “economically productive”. Residential schools were an extreme manifestation of this principle, since Indigenous Peoples needed to be indoctrinated into this system.

Our governments have failed miserably at keeping promises to First Nations, using the economy as an excuse. Russ Diabo, writer, political analyst and activist of the Kahnawake Mohawk, explains in this post “Justin Trudeau continuing proud Liberal tradition of betraying Indigenous peoples”. The Canadian Government, by continuing to approve dirty energy projects like the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the Liquified Natural Gas project on Lelu Island, is continuing the colonization of Indigenous Peoples. Will ignoring Treaty rights and human rights continue to part of Canada’s history?

I was moved by these words from a piece in the National Observer by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation in northern Alberta:

“Trump’s Dakota Access pipeline has already come at a terrible price. It’s up to us to hold Trudeau to his promise to honour the Treaties. The spirit of Standing Rock has not diminished; it’s tracking northward as people across Canada act in solidarity with Native Nations Rise, refusing to let attacks on Indigenous people for the sake of oil profits go unnoticed.

These winds of resistance in British Columbia and across Turtle Island should be a signal to our governments and to investors. When we rise, we rise as one. A light breeze becomes an unstoppable gale.”

As one speaker against the motion put it, investments in fossil fuels will eventually be unprofitable and we will no longer invest in them at that point. Does it matter that in the meanwhile we condone this kind of behaviour towards Indigenous Peoples? Do we agree that if there is money to be made, our Internal Investment Fund must make it? We will just wait until the market decides it’s unprofitable, then we will act? This is completely unacceptable to me and hope to many other OSSTF members and Canadians. Let’s get our money out of dirty energy by divesting from fossil fuels. OSSTF has signed the Leap Manifesto. To be sincere, let’s support an economy “based on caring for the Earth and for one other”, as put by the Leap Manifesto. This is only a tiny start to decolonization, but it will be on the right side of history going forward.

NOW Magazine puts the spotlight on the OTPP and divestment

NOW Magazine published an excellent piece about the campaign to divest the OTPP from fossil fuels. The Educators Climate Alliance thanks NOW and Toronto350 for cranking up the heat (figuratively)! Please follow the link to their publication.

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan faced with growing pressure to divest from fossil fuels” by Adria Vasil