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Fossil fuel industry spills money and power in year of tumult

Image by Petra Wessman

When a ship is plain sailing, it’s hard to knock it off course. That’s been the conundrum for us rubber-dinghied climate activists for decades now as we try our best to push the supertanker that is the global economy towards sustainability.

But in 2020 the ship hit the rocks – and hard. As the keel started to list most of us were preoccupied with more immediate concerns. But down below the waves the supposed engine room of our economy – the fossil fuel industry – was breached. 

The Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on fossil fuels was of historic proportions. The market value of giant companies like Shell and BP dropped by more than half in a matter of days. Demand for oil crashed so severely that oil commodity prices fell below zero: traders would effectively pay you to take oil off their hands. 

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Photo of rainbow drawing by Catherine Thackstone, Flickr
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Just & Green Recovery letter sent to the First Minister

As the peak of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic passed I worked with colleagues at Friends of the Earth Scotland and elsewhere to draft a letter to the First Minister about what a just recovery should entail.

The letter was initially signed by 82 civil society organisations from across different sectors of Scottish life.

Signatories from charities, trade unions and community groups set out 5 steps for a recovery that enabled the building of a fairer, greener and more equal society.

The letter went on to provide the foundation for a coalition campaign through 2020 and 2021.


31st May 2020

The First Minister
The Scottish Government
St Andrew’s House
Regent Road
Edinburgh EH1 3DG

Dear First Minister,

Scotland’s Just and Green Recovery from COVID-19

Representing a broad range of Scotland’s civil society, our organisations wish to meet with you to discuss our emerging vision of how Scotland can lead a radical response to the double crises of climate change and Coronavirus.

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The Brexit Vote

In recent weeks it has been said ad nauseam that Labour’s main problem in this election is it’s Brexit policy.

I do not agree.

In fact I would go so far as to say the Labour Party has, by a country mile, the best Brexit policy of the main parties.

This is not glowingly self-evident, but in my view it this can be established by elimination all possible alternatives.

Whether or not you agree with the 2016 result, I believe it’s reasonable to expect politicians seek to abide by the results of referenda.

However, in order to proceed a mandate is needed for whatever is to be negotiated. Although the margin for ‘leave’ was narrow, I believe that if the nature of Brexit had been clear during the referendum debate proceeding with the project now would be quite reasonable. But it is arguable the leave vote did not even mandate leaving the common market – let alone cutting regulation, environmental and labour standards all the rest that the harder Brexiteers desire. The mandate is fuzzy at best.
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How to divest a nation from fossil fuels

Scotland as a nation is still heavily invested in the companies most responsible for climate change. To get a glimpse of how we might turn this situation around we need only look across the Irish Sea. The Republic of Ireland’s world-beating divestment policy provides a fantastic example for Scotland to follow as it moves to establish its new public bank, the Scottish National Investment Bank.

Ireland’s parliament, the Oireachtas, passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill in July 2018. It’s a very simple piece of law that instructs Ireland’s Strategic Investment Fund not to invest in new fossil fuel supply companies, and to wind down its current investments within five years. Continue reading

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Royal Bank of Scotland: 10 years of climate campaigning

Creativity and crises over the last 10 years of the publicly-owned polluter.

“Make It Happen” was an RBS slogan that meant far more than they intended. In the mid-2000s activists had spent years of fighting oil spills, pipelines and mega coal mines and the damage they cause. When they began to look deeper into how these projects came about they found that, more often than not, it was banks like RBS who provided the money to make it happen.

Back in 2007 RBS boasted “Whether your oil and gas finance requirements are straightforward or complex, RBS will bring its broad and deep experience of the hydrocarbon sector to bear on them”, and “the thing that makes us different is that we are a truly oil and gas bank.” In case you missed the point, they promoted their services on the website www.TheOilAndGasBank.com.

London-based group Platform started the charge on RBS in a report entitled ‘The Oil & Gas Bank‘ by Mika Minio-Paluello published with the support of Friends of the Earth Scotland, People & Planet, NEF and Banktrack.

Minio-Paluello set it out: “the bank is intimately involved in transforming the carbon locked in oil and gas reservoirs thousands of metres underground into atmospheric carbon dioxide – the main cause of climate change. If carbon dioxide molecules had corporate tags of responsibility, the atmosphere would be filled with RBS logos.” Continue reading

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Breaking the power of fossil fuels: divestment at work

It’s not right, but money talks and money makes the world go round. Despite years of scandal, failure and chaos, financiers in the City of London continue to make the big calls on how to invest, and in doing so, hold our common future in their hands. Almost 10 years since the financial crash this is a frightening and precarious state of affairs.

The City doesn’t know best

Campaigners are challenging the power of big finance by insisting that investors commit to divest from fossil fuel companies. By demanding divestment we are saying that we know better than the financial industry and in many cases, we are forcing them to act.

And it’s working. Funds worth $6.15 trillion have made some sort of policy commitment to withdraw from fossil fuels. On 24th May the Financial Times reported that UK investment in green funds had “shot to a record high” with a 500 per cent increase over the last 10 years. Continue reading

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Campaign stories: Edinburgh University goes fossil free (finally!)

The successful five year campaign to divest Edinburgh University from fossil fuels should give heart to people everywhere who are campaigning for climate justice in their communities.

By Ruby Kelman and People & Planet Society, with additional text by Ric Lander.

Edinburgh University People & Planet with supporters in the Old College quad, March 2016. Credit: Ed P&P.

After six years of campaigning led by student group People & Planet, and drawing in the efforts of staff, alumni and numerous University bodies and departments and Scottish civil society, the University of Edinburgh has finally agreed to fully divest from fossil fuels.

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What we’re saying Yes to: Public investment for the people

The UK is in dire need of new investment for housing. Credit: GWN2008

There are a lot of problems we face that we need our government to tackle. Some demand the time of effort of policy makers, like the forging of new relationshops within and outwith our borders, the provision of new rights, and changes in regulations. Others demand cash, for example to increase spending on public services.

Economic investment is different again. Like service provision it costs money, but it in each case it should be a one off. You spend money to do a project – be it public or private – and society is better off afterwards whether or not further investment is provided. Continue reading

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No time to waste: to fight climate change we need a Labour Government

corbyn_klein_paris_2015-rosaluxnyc

Jeremy Corbyn speaking with Naomi Klein and others in Paris during the 2015 climate summit. Image by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

It’s 2017. You live in a dystopian future where tiny drone aircraft deliver pizzas, oil companies create earthquakes to get the last drops of fuel out of the earth, our fields are tilled by solar-powered robots, people wear video-recording sunglasses and have conversations with their wrist watches, dead rappers perform at concerts via hologram, and a weak international agreement to try and stop the skies from destroying natural life is being torn up by a fascist businessman who has taken over the USA.

Now is a time of great technological change and grave danger, and we need public investment, and lots of it, to get us though it.

Climate change, and the far-right’s rejection of it as a priority, should give us a special reason to panic because every time political leaders fail to act deepens the crisis, every moment we waste makes the task harder.

The (albeit inadequate) Paris deal gave the impression there was a direction of travel, too slow, but at least steady movement. The rise of the right has changed all this.

Whilst many work to show our political leaders and the wider world that climate change matters, Trump’s message of defiance works the opposite way. His actions do matter and will have a real effect. Markets will respond by making fossil fuels cheaper and renewable energy more expensive. Emissions will rise. And many, many more people will die – from extreme weather, heat stress, starvation, respiratory diseases and violent conflicts.

Some extol technological innovation and the power of the market, maintaining that these make political efforts on climate change essentially a side show. In fact the opposite is true; markets, only capable of delivering short-term profit, are unfit for unlocking the scale of capital required for the length of time over which it’s needed to tackle climate change. And in the modern era technological innovation almost always begins with the support of publicly-funded institutions (take silicon valley, digital TV or the web). Only big political support will bring about the fast economic transformation we need to tackle climate change, and we don’t have it. Continue reading

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