Taking on capital in an age of climate change

Photo by Senior Airman Larry E. Reid Jr., U.S. Air Force

I was privileged recently to be able to participate in the ‘Fossil Free Convergence’ in Montreal, Nov. 8-9. The Fossil Free Convergence springs from the ‘go fossil free’ movement, initiated by 350.org, the climate activist organization based in the US but with chapters worldwide. In Canada, the Canadian Climate Youth Coalition has helped steer the ship, and is planning another fossil fuel divestment-related conference for December.

Many scientists and activists have taken to calling our times the ‘anthropocene’, to draw attention to the fact that as James Hansen describes, humanity is truly ‘at the wheel’ of the planet in a way that no other species has been before, through our civilization’s activities and the climatic fluctuations that we have collectively brought about.

As a consequence of humanity’s blind and unwitting experiment with our own planet’s atmosphere, we face arguably the most challenging moral and political dilemma in the history of our species – one that implicates all life on the planet. It is not the aim of this brief reflection, however, to spell out climate science. This can be easily left to others who have done a fantastic job of it. Rather, I assume a basic knowledge of the issues and necessity of confronting climate change on the part of the reader here.

With global political intransigence at an all-time high and many high-stakes fossil fuel development projects planned and underway, climate activists find themselves steeped in a pitched battle with the fossil fuel industry itself, and its political employees, among whose cadres Stephen Harper ranks as a senior sales executive. The call from 350.org to divest is an important symbolic and political move to call attention to these issues at a point in time when urgent pressure and a change in direction is crucial. Climate activists, however, face an uphill struggle, not least from the industry and its political employees, but also in convincing our own communities, co-workers and families that this kind of action is critical. What follows is a reflection on the role of labour in confronting capital in this kind of context, and the particular challenges and promise of working from a rank and file, grassroots organizing basis within unions that are heavily integrated with fossil fuel capitalism through institutional investments.

I was invited to participate in a panel called Fossil Fuel Divestment: An Engine for Social Change, which was themed to labour movement perspectives. I was invited by a friend from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) who is familiar with my own interest in helping to lead an initiative within my own union (the OSSTF) and other teacher unions for fossil fuel divestment in the giant Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP, net assets $140.8 billion). My fellow panellists were Donald Lafleur (Vice-President, CLC) and Carla Lipsig-Mumme (York University Labour Studies). Amy Huziak, CLC Youth representative, moderated.

Donald offered a perspective of the Canadian Labour Movements (and specifically the CLCs) historical role in advocating divestment across a variety of categories, from apartheid to the Israel-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He championed the idea that Socially Responsible Investment can act as a replacement for fossil fuels and provide good rates of return. Carla spoke to her work with Work in a Warming World, a York University group which has published books and studies and has attempted to look at the idea of incorporating environmental themes into the everyday, legally institutionalized work of unions and union locals. For my part, I spoke from my perspective as a member of the rank and file of OSSTF, who is attempting to build initiative and a movement to steer both the OSSTF - and by extension the OTPP - to align with the 350.org divestment campaign. 

I offered some thoughts on the scope of this task as it relates to other teacher federations and the provincial government, and of the relationship this type of grassroots campaign had to the many young activists in attendance. They were similarly attempting to influence decision-makers on their campuses to divest pensions and endowments from fossil fuels. On December 5, some colleagues and I launched the Educators Climate Alliance to help promote the difference educators can make in the fossil divestment movement.

Apart from my panel, I managed to attend two other workshops: one was the better part of Tim Nashs workshop, Divestment and Reinvestment Strategies. His presentation included reference to equity portfolios and investment options that aregreenand that offer an alternative to fossil fuel-heavy forms of investment. In my view, there is a necessity to ensure forms of privatized environmentalservicesarent represented in these kinds of portfolios - water privatization is one example. There was much to admire, however, in Tim`s presentation and enthusiasm. At the very least, he offered a perspective of a stopgap and hopeful set of alternatives to fossil fuel investment that could act as potential viable alternatives for pension managers and actuaries facing down the real task of divesting from fossil fuels. 

I also participated in an innovative Non-violent Direct Action workshop that included some role-playing and small group work. This was cleverly run and featured group role-playing with the idea of how to react to a staged Board of Governors meeting after it had categorically refused to endorse a divestment strategy. There was a great discussion regarding tactics and challenges in this kind of social movement building that benefits everyone. 

As a former student activist and educator myself, I feel a kinship with the majority of university student activists who helped drive the Convergence, and indeed, fossil fuel divestment movements in general. Like me, they work within an institution they hold a direct ‘stake’ in but yet must build pressure from within to ‘steer’ climate action and fossil fuel divestment. Thus while universities or unions may trumpet environmental and green values, embracing fossil fuel divestment – and thus acting substantively on the threat of climate change – represents a qualitatively different sort of step. It is a step which is manifestly necessary when the science is taken into account.

In the US, of course – as in Canada – industry supporters are attempting to justify increased fossil fuel energy expansion under the umbrella of ‘job creation’ (a mantra) and economic security, despite the tenuous ground for these types of arguments. Through corporate media and right-wing web megaphones of various sorts, the North American public is being led to believe fighting climate change means taking the economy: remember Harper’s mantra from 2006, deployed against Stephane Dion’s relative climate awareness, about the “job killing carbon tax”. In this context, part of the challenge for climate activists working on divestment campaigns is to put the argument forward that institutional investors can ‘decarbonize’ their portfolios without necessarily hurting the pensions’ returns. Ultimately, though, the details of this type of strategy are the domain of pension fund managers, and not climate activists. In this sense, the 350.org campaign is simple and straightforward: agree to sign on to a divestment campaign, which means stopping any new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and phasing out existing investments over five years.

This kind of a campaign is necessary if climate activists, including those who are union members, want to press for high-profile action and attention to the climate file. The strategy is not intended to hurt companies financially, with the foreknowledge that the stocks would presumably be gobbled up by other interests and investors. However, if enough attention is drawn toward the issue by enough institutional investors, a clear message is sent; similar to the momentum built through such actions in 1989-1990 in South Africa, toward the tail end of apartheid. Coincidentally, this was the only other time the OTPP divested from anything, about a year after it was established, from assets connected to South Africa. The divestment strategy is really only a starting point, when one considers both the need to re-invest in a sustainable and equitable future, and the fundamental need to price carbon or otherwise definitely regulate carbon emissions, in order to bring them under control and ultimately, to a halt.

This reality brings us back full circle to the idea of a new role for labour in taking on fossil capitalism. By endorsing and working toward a fossil divestment strategy, rank and file unionists and their leadership accept a challenge to engage and attempt to influence the financialized corporate governance model of pensions that help provide them retirement security. In the pensions and institutional investment world, the idea of bringing some kind of ethical or moral standard to bear on such investments is nothing short of revolutionary (and therefore undesirable), where fiduciary duty to shareholders is trumpeted as the final and ultimate aim of sound pensions governance.

Climate activists need to forcefully argue that sound global governance needs to trump business-as-usual pensions governance. With respect to the OTPP, such a call is made more complicated by the fact that teachers in fact delegate only four members of the fund’s Board of Directors through the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), where the other four are appointed by the provincial government. At a first glance, climate activists are acting out of concern for ‘life over profit’, and this should always be true. However, in this case we need our own pensions managers to embrace the idea that they need to find ways to invest that steer away from fossil fuels, which will still honour their commitment to workers’ retirement security. All of this has implications for workers’ position in a post-carbon economy, the transition to which might be challenging for labour and capital. In the case of this type of divestment strategy, workers can act as the catalyst to confront capitalism once again, this time holding to account our own interconnections with the fossil fuel status quo.

On the ground in our locals, workers can begin a crucial dialogue about how to move forward with this type of tactic as a way of helping to create broader societal momentum on climate change. From educational sessions and workshops, to visits from young environmentalists to speak at union meetings for inspiration, there are myriad ways to help kickstart this type of labour climate activism. In this work we’re only hindered by a lack of imagination and creativity.

To speak to the bottom line in this type of campaign, workers are up against a highly financialized and corporatized opponent; yet, this time we have a very direct stake, from a retirement and planetary perspective. This time, as we confront capital with climate change in mind, we are up against the tight ties between our own unions and a fossil-fuel addicted capitalist economy.

By getting our own houses in order, we can work toward further democratizing our own control and influence over pensions in bringing our demands to bear on their corporate model of governance, and help join a growing movement to draw attention to the need for urgent action on climate change. In this way, workers can try to live up to the need for ‘system change, not climate change’.

Advertisement