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Carbon warriors prepare to take the battle to Paris summit

Paris, 1 September 2015: The divestment movement is gathering in Paris to review progress with three months to go until the UN climate summit.

A long list of the movement’s stars perform at a public conference. May Boeve, dynamo of the 350.org global climate movement, is an early speaker. We have a new saying these days, she says. “Things are coming together just as things are falling apart.”

At the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, we thought climate change would be something in the future. Today we see all around us that it is happening now. But we also see a vibrant, growing movement divesting from fossil fuels, and many other active campaigns to stop global warming.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, gives a rousing speech. Another difference between Copenhagen and now is that the alternatives to fossil fuels are clearly within our grasp, he says. The price of solar has come down eightfold since then. And there is the impact of the carbon bubble. The work the divestment movement has done with the numbers provided by Carbon Tracker has been so important in creating the hope that many of us now have of success in Paris — and the fears that fossil-fuel companies feel for their future.

These are not normal companies we are talking about any more, McKibben continues, a quiet anger in his voice. These are rogue companies. Think of Shell. They watched the Arctic melt just like the scientists said it would. Then instead of doing the obvious thing and saying, “We should stop drilling and go for the new alternatives to fossil fuels,” they go ahead and drill for yet more oil where once the ice would not have allowed them to. What kind of people are they, that agree to invest in such madness and to execute it?

Marjan Minnesma, architect of the landmark climate liability court case launched by Dutch citizens against their government, tells the story of how the campaign was won. It began with a letter to the government in 2012. The government replied, agreeing that the Dutch emissions-reduction targets were insufficient, but it did not want to become a front runner in climate policy.

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There’s no danger of that, Minnesma says. The Netherlands is 24th for renewables deployment in the EU today. So she and her colleagues appealed to ordinary citizens to become co-plaintiffs in a legal action. Hundreds handed in the summons in November 2013. “We used civil law, claiming an unlawful act, and we won,” says Minnesma, beaming. “We think you can do this in almost every country now.”

In the evening, a private dinner convenes in a historic dining room. Funders of the divestment movement — wealthy individuals and philanthropic foundations — gather to review progress, compare notes and plot future action. They have much to be pleased about. More than 400 institutions have divested: 28% of them foundations, 23% faith-based groups, 15% pension funds, 10% educational institutions. New commitments are being made daily.

We go around the table introducing ourselves. Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, raises smiles with a frank statement about how the Rockefeller family made its money from the founding of Standard Oil, later to become ExxonMobil, and has been trying to make amends ever since.

Ace energy analyst Mark Lewis and I are asked to talk for ten minutes each to kick off the discussion: he addresses the impacts of divestment in the capital markets; I examine the scope for reinvestment in the clean-energy transition. Lewis explains that in his view the world’s major oil & gas companies face the same two challenges that the European power-industry incumbents faced ten years ago — increasing policy focus on the environmental impact of their industry; and a growing commercial threat from the dramatic drop in the cost of renewables technologies.

Will the oil & gas companies make the same mistakes that most European utilities made a decade ago and persist with an unsustainable business model, he asks. Or will they learn from these mistakes and embrace the opportunity of diversifying into wind, solar and energy storage?

I give a personal account of how life looks and feels on the renewables and energy-storage frontlines. The impact of divestment is indeed impressive, I say, and will continue to grow. The impact of divested capital in the clean-energy revolution I have yet to see much evidence of at all. I am sure that will change.

This is an extract from Jeremy Leggett’s book The Winning of the Carbon War, which is being released online as a ten-part monthly series in the run-up to the Paris climate summit. It can be downloaded at www.jeremyleggett.net

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