Why The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Should DIvest from Fossil Fuels

Following is an Op-Ed I co-wrote that appeared originally in the Guardian 

Seattle has found itself at a crossroads of the fight against fossil fuel extraction. Heading right through our waterfront are coal trains from Wyoming, oil trains from North Dakota, and Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet. It is quite the juxtaposition. Progressive Seattle, with its climate hugging politicians, tied to the fossil fuel extraction it claims to oppose.

It’s the same challenge faced worldwide. At the same time as we make extraordinary advances in conservation and alternative energy sources, we lack the political will to stop fossil fuel extraction at the source. Bring on the solar panels, wind turbines, electric transit, bike lanes and LED lights, but if we keep pumping, digging and burning fossil fuel reserves we will still lose the fight. Scientists tell us that approximately 80% of our known reserves must stay in the ground to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

So how do we break the vicious cycle of fossil fuel companies operating with impunity? They want to convince us that fossil fuel use is inevitable, and that we must simply acquiesce, nay, even invest, in expectation of their profits. What a cynical view of the future.

That is where the fossil fuel divestment movement comes in. It asks us to make a simple choice. Do we keep investing in fossil fuel use, or do we start investing in the future we want? While no one individual or institution divesting will tip the scales, collectively it is a movement that tells politicians and the public that it’s possible to imagine a future free of fossil fuels. That vision of the future is essential to unlock the social, cultural, and political changes we desperately need.

That’s why we’re asking the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels. As their Seattle neighbours, we want them to join the fastest growing divestment movement in history – one that has now grown to 400 institutions worth a collective $2.6tn (1.7tn). And we want our campaign to inspire others in Seattle and beyond to join the movement.

When our political institutions fail, as they have with climate change, it falls upon the people to compel the social change we need. To call upon influential institutions and leaders to align their actions with their stated values. Indeed, to hold all of us accountable to the vision of the future we believe in.

It was Bill and Melinda Gates’ humanity that compelled their mission: “Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” It is that vision and humanity that makes their voices so powerful and why we ask them to join us.

Every day we see how climate change threatens that vision. The desperate refugees from the Middle East and Africa fleeing political instability fuelled by drought. The Pacific islanders watching their low-lying atolls slowly disappear. Searing heat plaguing locations around the globe.

It comes home to us here in Seattle too. Our poor breathe air far more polluted than the air breathed by the rich. Our East African community mourns those dying in the Mediterranean while struggling to make their place in a new city. Our Asian Pacific islander community watches typhoons hurtling to their hometowns. The largest wildfires ever in Washington state torch homes and blanket rural communities in smoke for months on end.

It is simply not okay anymore to say “we have a duty to profit as much as we can from our investments, regardless of the costs to the rest of society”. Or “it won’t make a difference anyway”.

Nor is it OK to say “the real solution is in a technological breakthrough”. The technology breakthroughs are already here, as conservation and alternative energy rapidly approach or exceed fossil fuels in cost effectiveness. The smart money has already moved away from coal investments. Carbon Tracker has demonstrated that the extraordinary costs of tar sands and Arctic oil drilling will make them unaffordable as well, and that the next big investment bubble to burst is the “carbon bubble”.

On divestment, all that is left is to say is which side you stand on – with the oil, gas and coal companies, or against them? With a future that truly values every human life, or a future that values the next increment of investment profit no matter how risky or damaging?

Here in Seattle we are building a coalition that knows what side it stands on. We will spend our energy urging the Gates Foundation and others to join the divestment movement. When they join it will be a signal for many others to join. If you want to help you can find us at gatesdivest.org.

When the grassroots and the powerful unite, change is inevitable. When the representatives of the world’s governments arrive in Paris to negotiate a climate treaty, let it be with as many voices as possible calling for the change we need.