Ellen Gibson: It’s been a slogan for a long time: ‘Think global, act local’. I think divestment is one of the campaigns that really tangibly offers people an opportunity to do that. It taps into the institutions and things that they have control over locally, but make a statement at a global level.
I think that’s a really, really powerful thing for people because it’s really getting to the heart of the climate change problem. It isn’t talking about turning your lightbulbs off or recycling. It’s about challenging the power of a massive industry. It really does that thing where it meets people’s need to be talking about systemic problems and talking about the big issue.
PN: How did you get involved in climate activism?
EG: I was involved throughout my teenage years in a network called Woodcraft Folk which is a co-operative, peace-oriented youth group. Through that I got interested in climate change as a justice issue. Woodcraft was such an important thing in terms of shaping who I was, my political beliefs and my friendship groups. It was about being empowered, that was the main thing. Being a teenager is a deeply disempowering experience most of the time. Being part of Woodcraft, people actually had trust in you as a 14-year-old to run an event or to be a representative of an organisation at a national conference.
When I went to university, I ended up getting involved in a divestment group which was trying to get our university to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. When I left university, I started working at [the international climate action group] 350.org, supporting other divestment campaigns and also got involved in Reclaim the Power, a national grassroots direct action network on environmental and other justice issues.
PN: One reaction in activist circles to climate change is: it’s over, there is no point in campaigning to stop climate change any more.
EG: For communities that are on the front lines of climate change, particularly people in the Global South and from poorer communities, people from island nations which are already sinking, they don’t really have a choice about whether or not they act on climate change. Their lives depend on it. So, for me, it’s a privileged position to be able to sit in our relatively comfortable existence and to say: ‘Ah, there’s no point in trying to stop this now because it is already going to happen.’
Also, we’re not going to stop climate change, we’re already locked into a certain level of warming. But it’s not too late to avert the worst impacts. And preventing climate change offers us opportunities to build a more just world as we do that, rather than waiting for it to wash over us and then trying to make people’s lives just a little less shit in the short term.
PN: What about the attitude: ‘If I do some recycling and change my lightbulbs, I’ve done my bit’?
EG: It’s that kind of individualistic mindset that we have drilled into us from a young age that is partly fuelling the crisis and which fuels neoliberal capitalism, the mentality that says that markets know best, that the government and people should not interfere, because the economy can just regulate itself.
“That isn’t going to necessarily damage them financially, what it does is send a really powerful statement about the nature of this industry”
We need to be thinking about systemic change at the level of our global economy. That’s a massive thing to say but also actually for most people it’s a real thing to say. I don’t think that most people really believe in their own minds that switching off lightbulbs is addressing climate change. Actually, we can be real with people: ‘Hey, that isn’t going to solve the problem, what is going to solve the problem is if you stop being an individual and start joining a group, start joining together with other people, start lobbying your decision-makers, start causing a massive fuss about this – that’s what’s going to make a difference.’
PN: What is fossil fuel divestment and why does it matter?
EG: The core principle is that ‘If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage’. Public institutions around the world, universities, local councils, pension funds, churches, health organisations and charities all have big pots of investments going into fossil fuel companies. These are the same companies which have spent decades spreading misinformation about climate change and funding climate denial and are ploughing billions and billions of pounds into exploring for new fossil fuels, digging up the Arctic, fracking, excavating huge coalmines, even though we know that we can’t have any new fossil fuel projects at all if we want to stop catastrophic climate change.
We need to challenge the power of these fossil fuel companies who are preventing us from taking the action we need both by the direct exploration they are doing, which is jeopardising our ability to address climate change, and also through the kind of lobbying policy work they do behind the scenes to stop governments putting in any meaningful agreements to address it. One of the ways we can challenge them is by making them a complete public enemy.
One way we can do that is by harnessing the power of these institutions that we publicly own. If you’re a student then in a way you have a kind of ownership over your university as an institution. We all live in local councils. We have the power to say: ‘Hey, we don’t want our local council, our university, our church, to be associating with these fossil fuel companies, we’re pulling our investments out of them.’
Although that isn’t going to necessarily damage them financially because they’re making more billions and billions of dollars a day digging oil out of the ground, what it does do is it sends a really powerful statement about the nature of this industry and how, as people and as institutions, we do not want to associate ourselves with them because they are the enemies of our ability to stop climate change.
Although it’s a campaign about money in a way, that isn’t really the goal of the campaign. That’s just the means which we’re using to make a point about the fossil fuel industry more widely and to build support for legislating against the industry.
There’s globally been about US$5 trillion of assets that have divested from the fossil fuel industry, which is massive. There’s hundreds of campaigns around the globe. Here in the UK there are about 100 campaigns targeting universities and churches and local councils. About 700-800 institutions globally have made commitments to divest from fossil fuels, including groups like the British Medical Association, the World Council of Churches. The government of Ireland is about to pass a fossil fuel divestment bill.
Some heavyweight institutions are coming out and making powerful statements about climate change and the fossil fuel industry. Which is really cool. I think it’s also galvanised a lot of new people into getting involved into climate activism, particularly students at universities.
For me, anyway, what was so great about the divestment campaign was that it gave me this real sense that I could do something that I had control over, that I had power over at a local level, but that had an actual, real global impact.