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The student movement transforming the global economy

We’re so used to stories of snowflake students having meltdowns over Halloween costumes that it’s refreshing to remind ourselves they really can change the world for the better.

Middlebury College in Vermont is home to the world’s first undergraduate course in environmental studies, established way back in 1965.  In the mid-noughties, students in the course started a Sunday Night Group to discuss new forms of climate activism. They linked up with visiting environmental studies scholar Bill McKibben to form 350.org, an organisation that tried to persuade governments to stop catastrophic climate change. By 2012, McKibben admitted that attempt had failed. Governments would make pious speeches about the existential threat of climate change, and committed at the Paris agreement to try and limit global warming to two degrees celsius. But they just couldn’t resist the revenues from new fossil fuel discoveries.

That’s when McKibben read a 2011 report by a UK consultancy called Carbon Tracker. The report was called Unburnable Carbon: Are the World’s Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble? It did some basic number-crunching. If the world is really going to limit climate warming to two degrees celsius, we have to limit our CO2 emissions over the next thirty years to 565 gigatonnes. However, if you add up all the proven reserves of fossil fuel companies, and how much CO2 they would emit if burnt, they add up to 2,795 gigatonnes.

The market value of these companies is based on the value of their total reserves. But it is highly likely that, as climate change gets worse in the next decade and renewable energy becomes a lot cheaper, most of those fossil fuels will remain in the ground.

In other words, the fossil fuel industry is massively over-valued, with $20 trillion in proven reserves likely never to be burned. Carbon Tracker warned its investor clients that they should divest out of fossil fuel companies, and out of countries that are highly dependent on fossil fuel revenues (Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman), before the tipping point is reached in the 2020s. Otherwise, they risk holding ‘stranded assets’ – assets once worth something but now worthless, like Betamax recorders or Boris Johnson’s reputation.

McKibben and his army of student activists read this report and saw an opportunity: make the inevitable happen quicker, with a worldwide campaign to persuade investors to divest from fossil fuels, in the interests of their clients and the interests of their planet. Don’t be the last investor left holding worthless fossil fuel shares. The campaign launched in 2012 with an article by McKibben in Rolling Stone, called Climate Change’s Terrifying Math.

The fossil fuel divestment movement started as a student-led campus movement, aiming to persuade university endowment funds to divest their billions in assets. This was a strategy taken from the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Students successfully persuaded university endowments to divest out of South African stocks, and that snowballed into a global campaign, with 155 campuses, 80 cities, 25 states and 19 countries boycotting South African stocks. Desmond Tutu has said the divestment campaign was a major contributing factor to the successful ending of apartheid.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign started slowly, with some high-profile failures. Harvard refused to divest. So did Middlebury, where the movement began. This year, Cambridge University refused to divest, despite three undergraduates going on hunger strike.

Battles may have been lost, but the war is being won. As of September, investment funds worth $6.4 trillion have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, up from $56 billion four years ago. In July, Ireland became the first country to commit to fossil fuel divestment. The cities of London and New York – both of which face serious long-term flooding challenges – pledged to divest out of fossil fuels this September, and New York is also suing five major oil and gas companies, ‘to shift the costs of protecting the city from climate change impacts back on to the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat’.

For pension and insurance fund managers, there isn’t just a financial risk to continuing to invest in fossil fuels. There’s a legal risk – trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to protect their clients’ financial interests. If they are warned about an incoming iceberg and don’t take action to avoid it, they will be sued. The law-firm Baker & McKenzie says ‘it is only a matter of time before a trustee faces litigious action’. In fact, a 23-year-old climate activist in Australia bought the first such case against his pension fund this June.

In a speech this year, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warned that ‘too rapid a movement towards a low-carbon economy could materially damage financial stability’. In other words, investors have to start planning now to limit their exposure to the carbon bubble. Many of the world’s largest investment funds, including the two largest, Blackrock and Vanguard, now insist that companies disclose their climate-change exposure in company reporting. In its annual report this year, Shell publicly acknowledged that the fossil fuel divestment movement poses a material risk to its business. That’s right pal. It’s you or us, and it’s you that’s going down.

This is a movement we can all join. If you have a pension fund, you can make sure it’s divested from companies with high-greenhouse-gas emissions, to protect your retirement fund and protect the planet. Many funds say they’re coming under growing pressure to accommodate this consumer demand. Blackrock, the world’s largest investment fund, predicts that ethical shares funds will grow from $25 billion today to $400 billion in a decade.

I told my pension fund manager, Moneyfarm, that if they didn’t give me the option to divest I’d cash out, as soon as the market improves, and go to a firm that did give me this option. I was told: ‘We are very much considering a ESG (environmental, social and governance) offer in the pipeline but with new products they do take a while to go ahead. I will pass on your thoughts as a recommendation and hopefully we will be able to provide such a product as you are correct there is a market for it.’

If you’re a student or member of the public, you can lobby your university, your company or your city to divest from fossil fuels. Middlebury College, by the by, is voting again this January on whether to divest. It will be a fitting move for a college where students started a $6.4 trillion shift in assets. Good work, snowflakes.

Rage against the dying of the light

I was walking to the Extinction Rebellion protest last weekend, and I suddenly started crying.

I hardly ever cry, and I have certainly never cried for the ‘environment’, or nature, or baby seals.

It just suddenly felt real.

It was like I was going to a doctor’s appointment that I’d been putting off for months, knowing in the back of my mind that I was really, really ill. And now I was facing up to the possibility of death, and I was frightened and sad.

The numbness that I had carried around with me subconsciously, for years, was beginning to melt.

I headed for Southwark Bridge. My friend Charlie was in one of the ER ‘affinity groups’ and he’d told me to meet at Southwark for 9.30am, in order to blockade the bridge at 10.

The plan was to blockade five bridges in London, and then march to Parliament Square for a rally.

Extinction Rebellion had only been going for a month or so.

It’s a movement of civil disobedience, inspired by three environmentalists recently given jail sentences for protesting against fracking.

The sentences were later quashed, but their willingness to risk prison to protect nature galvanized the environmentalist movement, particularly after the latest warnings from the IPCC that human civilization has around a decade left to halt catastrophic warming of the ecosystem.

Climate change is visible now – in the heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the rapid extinctions of 60% of wildlife species in the last 50 years. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the acidification of the ocean and death of half the coral around the world – including a fifth of it in the last three years.

The ecocide has already begun for other species, now it’s heading for us. And we’re sleepwalking towards it.

But what can I do about it? Is it worth even thinking about, if there’s nothing to be done? Just try and carry on as normal, until the end.

But the more we live in denial of the real, the more our civilization feels psychotic.

I got to Southwark Bridge at 9.20. It was a cold, bright day, the City was deserted, and the bridge was completely empty, apart from six or seven police. I smiled at them innocently and walked across the bridge.

On the other side, I saw my friend Charlie, who lives in Dorset, wearing a tweed jacket and photographing the river. He looked like a German spy.

‘Charlie!’ I said, but he carried on photographing. Maybe he didn’t want to break his cover.

I chuckled and walked down the steps off the bridge. Charlie followed me.

‘Dude!’

He led me to a nearby Starbucks, which was apparently the headquarters for the ramshackle rebellion, or at least the Southwark Bridge contingent of it.

There were about 20 people there. They all seemed to be from the West Country – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset. They were quite green and hairy.

By 10am we still hadn’t left the café.

At 11, we congregated outside, and one of the leaders – Dave – gave us a briefing.

‘OK, here’s the plan. We walk to one side of the bridge, and Phil and his group walk to the other. When Phil radios me, we immediately block both sides of the bridge.’

‘But how will the rest of us know?’

‘Good point. OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise my hand.’

‘Maybe raise both hands?’

‘OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise both hands. Then we move out the bollards.’

‘But they can move the bollards.’

‘OK. Then we just lie down. And roll out the banner. Where are the legal observers?’

‘Present, Dave.’

‘Hands up if you’re an arrestable.’

I considered briefly if I was arrestable. It was unlikely anyone would be charged, the police have better things to do. But if I was it would stymie travelling to the US. In addition, I was meant to be playing tennis that evening. I decided I was non-arrestable.

About eight people volunteered to be arrestable.

‘That’s not many Dave.’

‘Is this all of us?’ one lady asked despairingly.

‘There’s a bus coming from Cornwall. It’s late. Won’t get here til 12.’

It felt like the rebellion at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, shortly before they get their arses kicked.

I thought it would all be over in ten minutes, we’d be cleared off the bridge, some people would be arrested for a few hours, but we’d have made our point. Pointless, in a way, but a start.

‘Dave, there’s a bloke in a van watching us.’

There was a white van opposite us, which said Auberon Steaks. The driver was watching us very intently.

‘Alright, let’s move’ said Dave. We moved about 20 metres down the street.

‘The arrestables may want to give their phones to a friend, as the police can get all your data out of it. Has everyone got the legal info?’

We were all given cards with solicitors’ numbers on them, and advice on how to engage with the police. Basically, say ‘no comment’.

‘Ready? Let’s go.’

We walked onto the bridge. There were perhaps another 50 people milling about on the bridge, obviously protestors, and a lot of police with large truncheons.

I wondered why ER hadn’t publicized the blockade better, so thousands of people were on the bridge, rather than 100. They seemed to have a secretive, direct-action mentality, when surely this had to become a public mass movement to have any success, like Gandhi’s Quit India movement.

Suddenly, I saw a large group moving up the other end of the bridge, holding a green ER banner.

I looked round, and our small group was attempting to block off our side of the bridge. There was a group of 20 or so, but they were clumped on one side of the road. The left-hand lane was exposed and could easily be re-opened by the police. All that stood in the way were two old ladies sitting on fold-out deckchairs.

‘Please move to the pavement’, a young policeman said to them. ‘You’ve made your point, now move, or I will be forced to arrest you under the Highway Obstruction Act. You will then be charged, and unable to travel to many countries. Why not just move?’

‘I’m not moving’, said the old lady. ‘The planet is dying and the government’s not doing anything. I’m not moving until they start taking climate change seriously.’

A cheer went up. Dave was getting arrested. He was holding a rose. ‘Do you mind if I give my bag to someone?’ He seemed pliant, close to tears, like he was being led quietly away to execution. They handcuffed him and he walked off, while everyone applauded him. A noble death.

Another woman was arrested. She started screaming. She wasn’t one of the ‘arrestables’ and seemed genuinely shocked as she was handcuffed behind her back. ‘Don’t worry’, I felt like telling her. ‘Nothing’s actually going to happen to you.’

A young woman called Rachel stood next to me. Her stepfather had been one of the people arrested. ‘Is he going to be OK?’ she asked. ‘He’s going to be totally fine’, I said.

The other side of the bridge was now completely blocked off, by 100 people or so. I heard one of the police say: ‘We don’t have the numbers, there’s nothing we can do.’

As I watched someone else get arrested and be led off, followed by a legal observer, I suddenly thought, ‘why don’t I get arrested?’

I imagined myself being led away to cheers, my face nobly Stoic. In the news, the headline: ‘Heroic philosopher risks all for climate change.’

Our group backed up to join the other group. We were now around 200 people, and weren’t going anywhere. We had taken the bridge!

The sun came out. A funk band appeared, with amps and a drum kit, and we danced in the sun while our banners fluttered. Word went through the crowd that ER had taken five bridges in London – Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. A wave of joy ran through us.

 

People danced, passed around cupcakes, fruit and biscuits. They gave leaflets to passers-by, and engaged the cops in earnest political discussion. The cops relaxed too. No one was resisting arrest, no one was giving them grief. To be honest, no car was even trying to cross the bridge – this was the City on the weekend, it was empty.

There were some talks and slightly lame folk singing about protecting the Earth. The movement needs better anthems. The crowd was very West Country, and had a slightly twee feel to it – pan-pipes, witches, placards mourning the tawny owl. The cynical outsider journalist in me started to take the piss.

A West-country witch puts a spell on the cops

But this was not the time, anymore, to observe from the sidelines and make wisecracks. Who cared if the protestors were slightly fairy-folksy? Blockading a few bridges was the least we could do.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their life in the fight against fascism. Humanity is now facing a much graver threat. Getting arrested for a few hours traffic-blocking was a tiny sacrifice. I’m surprised people aren’t doing far more. We’re frozen, and we need someone to scream to break the ice.

After a few hours, one of the ER organizers told us we were going to march to Parliament Square, picking up the other protestors on the bridges in between. People were welcome to stay on the bridge, if they wanted to get arrested.

We marched down Embankment, cheering. There were only 200 of us, or so, but it felt great.

Then we joined the crowd at Lambeth Bridge and milled around there for a long time. I heard one of the organizers say ‘to be honest this is a lot bigger than we expected it to be’.

George Monbiot on Lambeth Bridge

I was getting cold so decided to walk down and see the other bridges. Rachel came with me. We both felt exhilarated and hopeful. It’s an amazing feeling, when a crowd of strangers congregate and become friends. The streets become a festival.

‘I felt so moved when my stepfather got arrested’, she said.

‘Me too’, I said. It’s a small sacrifice, but martyrdom pushes an ancient button.’ I thought about the Latin etymology of sacrifice – sacer facio, to make sacred.

We finally reached Parliament, and I said goodbye to Rachel. She went to the police station to meet her step-father.

I headed to my parents for dinner. My Dad did not approve, my aunt said it had taken her hours to cross London by bus.

‘I apologise for the disruption but it’s important.’

It was the first act of civil disobedience I’d ever taken. That was true for most of us – academics, civil servants, scientists. We weren’t hardened activists by any means. We were nervous.

The idea behind ER is that continued acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance will disrupt the functioning of the state and the economy until the government and people have to take notice of the issue.

ER then wants the government to stop using fossil fuels by 2025, and start a ‘citizens assembly’ to work out a proper response to the crisis.

I don’t know if I agree with this last aim. Don’t we have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ already? It’s called parliament. Unfortunately, many people, perhaps most people, do not yet feel in danger from climate change.

Nigel Farage called the campaign ‘economic terrorism‘. Well, he should know.

This week, ER has stepped up its campaign by organizing ‘swarms’ – groups that block off roads for seven minutes, then step back to let traffic pass, then do it again. It’s causing huge traffic jams throughout London, and leading to angry confrontations with drivers. You can watch it on Facebook Live.

‘What’s the point of this?’ one motorcyclist shouted this morning. ‘It’s totally pointless!’

‘We want the government to listen,’ explained the slightly posh nice lady filming the protest.

‘Is the government here now? Show me! All you’re doing is making everyone late, so they’ll drive faster and there’ll be more accidents, you twats.’

‘We’re sorry but it’s important’.

The motorbiker drove angrily up to the protestors, as if he wanted to run them down – this was because he was being made five minutes late. He was led back by the cops.

The policeman advised the young woman filming the protest: ‘Don’t get too close, they might punch at you.’

‘OK Thank you’, said the protester. ‘I feel so honoured to be with these brave people protesting’, she said to the camera.

‘Sorry for the delay!’ she says to another van driver.

‘This the third time today’, he says, arms folded wearily.

‘Well…thanks for not calling us scum!’ she says cheerily.


The same day as the bridge blockade, very similar tactics were used in France, for a completely different cause – to protest high fuel prices. The street blockades led to furious altercations with motorists, and one drove into the protesters and killed one of them.

It’s not a good sign when groups give up on the democratic process and break the law to make their point.

And it may all be pointless. Catastrophic climate change may already be unstoppable, with feedback loops leading to the melting of the arctic icecap and the release of methane gas, which causes far worse global warming than carbon dioxide.

Still, I can’t do nothing. I’m not going to sleepwalk into extinction. Even if it just means I can look my maker in the eyes after death.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

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