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“My divestment journey has involved collaborations with literally thousands of other people”

Carla Denyer is a Green Party councillor in Bristol. Carla was part of the campaign that successfully persuaded Bristol University to withdraw investments from the most carbon intensive fossil fuels extraction companies this week. Here she talks about her personal divestment story.

In 2012 I was part of a group of young Quakers who were motivated to find out more about the idea of ethical investment, and to encourage our fellow Quakers to engage with the topic.

A tongue in cheek version of Bristol Uni’s coat of arms

At this time, a year before the Fossil Free campaign reached the UK, there were already many individual Quakers (and others) who had moved their personal savings out of the high street banks that fund(ed) environmentally damaging projects such as tar sands extraction, but also cluster bombs and so on. They moved accounts to more ethical banks such as the Co-op, Ecology Building Society and Triodos. However, the national body for Quakers in Britain – known as Britain Yearly Meeting – maintained shares in the banks that invested in these industries. We engaged with the finance trustees of Britain Yearly Meeting, acting as a ‘critical friend’ to challenge and help them towards an updated ethical investment policy.

In 2013 the Fossil Free campaign was launched in the UK, and interest in ethical investments – particularly divestment from fossil fuels – rocketed. The campaign highlighted the £5bn held in universities’ endowments, with the first campaigns launching at Edinburgh, Birmingham and University College London. The Quakers in Britain became the first large UK organisation to divest, in October that year.

We definitely cannot claim sole credit for this decision; however I am sure that we were a factor. This is a pattern that I have seen repeated in almost every successful divestment campaign since. The ones that win have three or more groups lobbying decision-makers from different directions, using a range of tactics and various levers of power available to them.

Later, here in Bristol, I got involved in three more divestment campaigns – aimed at persuading Bristol City Council, Avon Pension Fund and Bristol University to divest.

George Ferguson made the commitment to divest on behalf of Bristol City Council in February 2015. The result followed a campaign led by the inimitable activist Holly Templer, using creative methods such as singing and dancing flashmobs. My fellow Green councillor Charlie Bolton then asked for the Mayor’s commitment at a Mayoral Question Time session. However, it is unclear whether this divestment has taken place yet, as we recently discovered that the Council’s ethical investment policy has not been updated since 2011. (To write to your councillor and ask them about this, visit here.)

With tens of millions invested in fossil fuels, Avon Pension Fund became the next target of the Fossil Free Bristol campaign. This campaign is still ongoing. This fund looks after the pensions for 106,000 current and former employees of Avon Council and other local government bodies in the former Avon area. A broad campaign including pensioners, UNISON union members and Green councillor Martin Fodor have been applying pressure to the fund’s committee. This culminated in the then Mayor Ferguson writing a letter to the committee after Councillor Fodor’s motion received cross-party support in December 2015. However, as Bristol is only one of the public bodies covered by the Avon Pension Fund, more pressure is needed on the other organisations to make change happen. (If you work for one of those organisations, why not write to your representative?)

In late 2015 I also got involved in the student-led campaign at Bristol University. The campaign had been running since 2014 and had already produced a petition with thousands of signatures, a supporting open letter from over 50 staff, and a detailed case which they had presented to the university’s management.  They organised film nights, colourful demos and even painted a massive mural along the M32. I realised that as a newly elected councillor with a seat on the University of Bristol Court, I could add a new angle in the tried-and-tested pincer movement approach to divestment campaigning.

In November 2015 I used my seat on the Court (an advisory body whose membership includes students, staff, alumni, local elected representatives and other stakeholders) to propose a motion on divestment at their AGM. The motion fell by only 2% of the vote. However, undeterred and armed with new information from an investigative journalist at The Bristol Cable I submitted an improved motion in December 2016, which passed by a large majority. Since the Court is only an advisory body, this wasn’t the end of the story though. Student campaigners continued to work tirelessly behind the scenes, meeting with the University’s new Finance Director to put their case. This week we learned that the University’s Board of Trustees has decided to follow their advice and agree a strong divestment policy. A clear victory, although there is still more to do at Bristol Uni.

Grandparents for a Safe Earth

So far my divestment journey has involved collaborations with literally thousands of other people who share a deep concern about climate change. Some are young people worried about the effect that climate change will have directly on their own lives. Some are older people worried about the effect on their grandchildren. Others are research scientists and engineers whose daily work involves predicting the disasters that climate change will bring or developing mitigations. Some are hard-working union members who simply recognise that investing their savings in an industry without a future is a bad idea. Many are several of these people at once. And I don’t believe that any of these campaigns would have been successful without this diversity of experiences and expertise.

Fossil fuels divestment is getting pretty mainstream these days. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England supports it, as do Barack Obama, Desmond Tutu and the president of the World Bank. The Rockerfeller Brothers Fund, the British Medical Association and over a quarter of UK universities have divested. But still the divestment battle isn’t over– there are hundreds of active campaigns targeting different institutions across the world. To find your local one, visit campaigns.gofossilfree.org

You can also divest your own savings. To learn how, visit:
http://moveyourmoney.org.uk/campaigns/divest/

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