Turning away from fossil fuels: Lessons from the anti-apartheid movement

The rhetorical battle over turning away from investments in companies contributing to climate change, it seems, has been won.

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

On September 9, Harvard University President Larry Bacow heralded the university’s commitment to shift its $41.9 billion endowment — the largest in the world — to “a portfolio of investments that support the transition to the green economy.” Two weeks later, September 23, Boston University announced a similar commitment.

The rhetorical battle over turning away from investments in companies contributing to climate change, it seems, has been won.

These moves came after more than a decade of broad-based campaigns against fossil-fuel investments, which at Harvard included petitions, protests, a legal complaint to the Massachusetts Attorney General, and storming the field during a Harvard-Yale football game.

And yet, as activists learned in the decades-long campaigns to disinvest from apartheid in South Africa, the implementation of commitments was often limited by fine-print qualifications or loopholes. Despite legitimate celebration of new momentum, many questions remained unanswered, as detailed in an analysis in Harvard Magazine.

The real test of success must be to what extent resources are actually removed from fossil-fuel production and reinvested in renewable energy.

On that front, Big Oil — like the planet — is beginning to feel the heat.

On one day in May, for example, climate campaigners won major victories at Exxon/Mobil’s and Chevron’s shareholder meetings, shortly after a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its 2019 carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Increasingly, investors themselves are recognizing the market risks involved in fossil fuel production. Some companies themselves are beginning to diversify their portfolios into renewable energy.

Yet, as of 2020, only seven energy sector companies had pledged to achieve net-zero emission targets. And despite the fact that renewable energy is cheaper, the fossil-fuel industry is still receiving a massive $6 trillion dollars in government subsidies, according to the IMF.

As the COP26 climate summit prepares to open in Glasgow on October 31, to evaluate progress toward the goals of achieving net-zero GHG emissions and limiting the rise in our atmosphere’s temperature to 1.5oC above preindustrial levels by 2050, the odds of success are still small. In August, the UN issued its latest UN Climate Change Report, which the UN Secretary General called a “code red for humanity.”

Yet cumulative pressures can reach a turning point, producing a cascade of effects. Many of us who utilized shareholder activism as part of broader campaigns decades ago recall the days when a 3 percent vote, permitting shareholders to resubmit their resolutions the following year, seemed an insurmountable hurdle. And the oil lobby appeared unshakable.

In New York City, during the anti-apartheid movement, activists led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and American Committee on Africa (ACOA) challenged Shell, Chevron, and Mobil Oil for supplying oil to apartheid South Africa — “fueling apartheid.”

Together we galvanized support for the international boycott of Shell Oil and launched the ImMOBILize Apartheid Coalition to press the companies to stop supplying oil to South Africa until apartheid was no more. We supported anti-apartheid shareholder resolutions, along with frequent demonstrations outside Mobil’s 42nd Street Manhattan headquarters and at Mobil-sponsored events, until the company withdrew its $400 million in assets from South Africa.

Elsewhere, other international struggles opposed the corporate quest for oil and fought to uphold peoples’ rights, such as the Ogonis’ campaign in Nigeria to protect their land, livelihoods, and lives from Shell Oil, and win justice for its collaboration in the murder of Ogoni leaders, including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. Such campaigns highlighted the disproportionate threat of Big Oil and climate change to the planet’s most vulnerable communities of color and food systems.

In the anti-apartheid movement, one of the major turning points occurred in 1985, when Chase Manhattan, one of South Africa’s major creditor banks, refused to roll over its maturing loans to South Africa — threatening an international “run on the banks” that South Africa could not afford and sought to head off by declaring a moratorium on debt repayments. The Chase Manhattan moment exponentially increased economic pressures on business and government and intensified corporate campaigns and sanctions that hastened the country’s first national democratic elections nine years later.

In 1994, many of South Africa’s supporters turned from disinvesting from apartheid to reinvesting in the new democracy through organizations like Shared Interest, which for 27 years has guaranteed South and Southern African bank loans to businesses, farms, and housing builders in low-income Black communities, benefiting 2.3 million people.

As more wealth is concentrated in fewer and larger companies, many of which are actually larger than some national governments, there is even more potential for corporate campaigns to add to the momentum for change from broader campaigns.

The environmental movement draws strength and urgency from the undeniable consequences already being felt not only in the most vulnerable countries but also in rich countries — depicted daily in the world’s media through uncontrollable wildfires and refugees from hurricanes, cyclones, floods, and drought. Spiraling racism and a virus that knows no borders compound damage and reinforce the need to take action.

But the positive vision of a fossil-fuel-free world can and should be sold not only to activists already receptive to a Green New Deal. It also makes sense in terms of hard-headed business logic, which can be understood by corporate leaders who are willing to think long-term rather than only of immediate profits.

As the Carbon Tracker initiative recently pointed out, the narrative of necessary pain to avert climate disaster has been made totally obsolete by the rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. Countries and companies alike must recognize the change for their own advantage, or be left behind by technological innovation.

Coordinated international campaigning of all kinds is essential to accelerate the pace. But the convergence of moral urgency and technological potential provides an opportunity that we must not fail to leverage by exerting unrelenting pressure on those in places of power to match words with action.

Historical turning points are most often visible only in hindsight rather than in the moment.

This can be one of them.


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