In October 2015, the UK Conservative Party (known as the 'Tories') proposed rule changes to public sector pension funds and procurement policies that would prevent local government from being able to divest and boycott. The Tories had singled out the anti-arms and BDS campaigns, claiming that these undermined the UK government’s foreign policy.
A ban from divesting fossil fuels was not mentioned in the original press release1 but the announcement came less than a month after climate campaigners published an online map and database2 that provided detailed investment information, including amounts invested in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, for all UK local authority pension funds. The database has attracted widespread publicity, inspiring 46 and counting new fossil free grassroots campaigns, and is cited by the Environment Agency Pension Fund as a factor in their recent divestment decision.
Divestment is an important tool for the climate movement today – one that we will seek to protect at all costs3. The current fossil free divestment campaigning wave began a few years ago on US university campuses and has firmly established itself in the UK. It’s a tactic that has invigorated the climate movement, bringing many new people into activism. At the February 2015 annual “Show the Love” day of mobilisation, over 50 actions took place across the UK targeting universities, banks, pension funds, councils and more.
Of course, fossil free campaigners are not the first to use divestment as a tool for social change. We join a rich tradition that includes the anti-tobacco, anti-apartheid, anti-militarist, and the Palestinian BDS movements. Even within the climate activism, there is a heritage of cultural divestment campaigning4. Many of these movements continue to use divestment to de-legitimise colonial and oppressive regimes and corporations, and to take away their “social license to operate”.
Despite not being active in the Palestinian and anti-militarist movements, I feel connected to different struggles from the shared use of a powerful tool, and many within the climate movement felt that any bans - even if not directly referencing the climate movement - could set a dangerous precedent, and undermine people power and local democracy. So in response, campaigners from the BDS, anti-militarist and the climate movements joined forces to push back on the Tories’ proposals. We are also, together, challenging the rule changes regarding procurement and boycott although, currently, boycott is not a tool used as widely as divestment within the climate movement.
For the consultations that ended on 19 February, we created a multi-organisation e-petition that gathered over 20,000 signatures. We then launched an open letter for local councillors to sign opposing these policies, and are currently strategising for future legal action. Ties between the climate and anti-militarist movements already exist - several amazing individuals take direct action on both climate and anti-militarist issues, and Campaign Against the Arms Trade “Arms to Renewables” campaign and the “Wind not Weapons” day of action at DSEI (the world's largest arms fair) in 2015 are some inspiring examples of recent inter-movement work. The perhaps unintended consequences of the very frightening Tory proposals has been the further strengthening of these ties.
Solidarity and inter-movement work is important because the struggles of climate and anti-militarist campaigners are irrevocably interlinked. Although climate change is technically caused by the excessive concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere and the parallel degradation of our planet’s natural environment and capacity to self-repair, it is, more fundamentally, a product of a global society that organizes along the exploitative principles of a military-industrial complex.
The political class (i.e. the State, the military and their corporate buddies) are not just implicated in climate change because of how much GHG they emit into the atmosphere but because they are creators and guardians of violent structures that systematically protect the interests of the global elite at the expense of the majority of the world’s populations. Excessive concentration of GHG and environmental degradation are simply by-products of this structural exploitation. The political class gets away with climate and humanitarian crimes by playing on the general anxiety that permeates capitalist and military-industrial societies. This point is made by the book the Secure and Dispossessed, which exposes the myths behind dominant narratives of “‘energy security’”, “water security”, “food security”, and “resource security”. The lights are not about to go out but such a narrative allows the political class to justify fracking, water privatisation, genetically modified industrial agriculture, militarised borders, and similar policies in the name of climate action even though such policies breed insecurity, fear and drive climate change.
What we truly need for effective climate action is democracy, justice, solidarity, peace building and generosity. Decarbonisation of our energy and economic systems is – obviously – critical, but not sufficient in our quest to realise a low carbon world. Democracy is key because corporate control of resources has been a key driver of climate change; justice is key because different communities world over have been impacted differently; solidarity is key because our struggles are interlinked; and peace building and generosity are key because violence is a driver of insecurity which in turn leads to and exacerbates climate and humanitarian crimes. I take heart from Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell, an investigation of disaster communities that reveals that while the State invariably responds with fear -“elite panic” - and the military, ordinary people respond to disasters, including extreme weather events, with purposefulness and fellowship.
Effective climate actions are those solutions that address root causes of injustice and thwart the dominant narratives of “security”. There is a strong element in the fossil free divestment movement that incorporates justice and democracy: campaigners advocate that divested funds should be reinvested into the local economy in a manner that has clear social and environmental benefits and that ordinary people should be able to meaningfully participate in shaping reinvestment decisions. At its most transformative, divest/reinvest proposes transferring wealth to community renewable energy, good quality affordable housing, free education, free childcare, universal healthcare, a fair and just energy system, a decent welfare system so that no one lives in anxiety and other social ends5. Campaigners are working out how to support impacted communities in the Global South through divest/reinvest, and closer to home, environmental justice campaigns such as 'Switched on London', which is calling the Greater London Authority6 to set up a 100% people owned energy supply company, are creating positive democratic and low carbon solutions for reinvestment.
The response to the recent Tory attacks on divestment and boycott has shown that many climate and anti-militarist campaigners share a common understanding and a feeling of fellowship. Our work now is to continue this direction of travel in whatever way we can. By doing this we effectively join the dots between the climate crisis and the military-industrial complex and meaningfully recognise of our struggles – and our solutions - are interlinked.
Jo Ram is co-founder of Community Reinvest and a climate activist: www.communityreinvest.org.uk