Australians are taking effective climate action on a scale not seen anywhere else on the planet. By Bill McKibben.

Bill McKibben
Australia leads way in fossil fuel divestment

It looks as though 2016 will go down as the year that Western democracies were torn open to reveal the growing disconnect between citizens and governments. A year when many felt trust in government had fallen so low that it was better to try to burn it all down than continue on our current course.

Next month, Donald Trump will become the president of my country. Britain is destined to leave the European Union. In Australia, the political malaise is so strong that no prime minister has made it through a full term in almost 10 years. But even as the major parties scramble to find a popular face to put on their unpopular policies, many voters are abandoning them for the empty promises and scapegoating of far-right populism. 

Riding that wave is Pauline Hanson, who brought a swag of One Nation senators with her to the Australian parliament – including a climate change denier and conspiracy theorist of an ilk I thought only existed in fossil-fuel-loving America. 

But there is a much greater disconnect that is plaguing global democracies, and nowhere more so than in Australia.

More than 75 per cent of Australians believe the climate is changing and the vast majority agree that humans are driving this change. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, the Australian government is currently the biggest pariah nation in the world when it comes to action on climate change.

This was highlighted at the recent United Nations climate meeting, where Australia faced more questions than any other country on its lack of climate policy and action. Indeed, things look pretty bleak down under: both your federal government and the Queensland Labor government are pushing for Indian company Adani to open the world’s largest coalmine in the Galilee Basin – against the wishes of the land’s traditional owners, who are fighting back in the courts. The federal government is bullying the states to drop renewable energy targets and pressuring them to open up gas exploration on farmland; they are scrapping funding to renewable energy bodies, while pouring money into new fossil fuel ones. On the climate sanity front, it’s not a pretty sight.

It is a sad indictment that your federal government perceives climate change to be an effective wedge to score cheap political points off its opposition. It is a dangerous game in which no one wins. 

Indeed, it’s becoming manifestly clear that all of us around the world stand to lose from this retrovision, including such short-sighted politicians as your environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who would seemingly see the world burn before they were willing to take genuine climate change action. 

Well, the world is burning. As 2016 grinds to a close, we now know it has been the hottest year on record – meaning 16 out of the hottest 17 years on record have happened this century. The Great Barrier Reef is still ghostly white, and a record drought grips much of Australia. The Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are expected to see record lows of sea ice at the North Pole next year. 

But as your government sleepwalks, Australians – like growing numbers of people everywhere – are taking effective climate action on a scale not seen anywhere else on the planet. 

This week, a new report was released – by global financial outfit Arabella – charting the global trajectory of the fossil fuel divestment movement. Divestment, quite simply, is the opposite of an investment – it means getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. And the numbers are astonishing: more than 690 institutions representing almost $A7 trillion and countless individuals worldwide now make up the fossil-free movement. 

This is all from a small movement that started on United States college campuses barely four years ago. The divestment campaign was initially based on the apartheid divestment campaign, grounded in the moral case. But what we’ve found in four years is that it is now about real money. Take note Australian politicians: while you dither, the money is moving out of fossil fuels.

Indeed, removed from the highly charged and partisan federal space, your local institutions are actively working behind the scenes to strip the fossil fuel industry of its funding and the social licence it needs to operate. 

Australia has more divested institutions per capita than any other developed country, and is second only in number of divestments to the US. Of this, 30 local councils have divested from fossil fuels and one in 10 Australians now live in a fossil-free council. These councils range from progressive, inner-city councils such as Moreland and Leichhardt, to former coal towns such as Newcastle, and rural councils such as Mount Alexander and Ballina.

In the mining state of Western Australia, about one-quarter of all residents now live in councils that have divested – that is 2.5 times the national average. 

But the fossil-free movement goes beyond councils. Superannuation funds, universities, churches and health institutions have also pledged to shift their investments away from coal, oil and gas.

The campaign for universities to divest is rapidly picking up speed. Already six Australian public universities have divested, with the University of Technology Sydney recently announcing its intention to divest in the new year.

As the intellectual compass of our society, universities are a particularly strong plank of the divestment movement. The ideas and debates that happen within university walls often seep into society and shape the issues of the day. So it makes sense that students and staff are calling on the world’s universities to put their money where their morals are and stop funding an industry that is destroying the climate. 

The question they raise is a good one, and one all world governments would do well to consider: How can you purport to care about our future when our own actions and investments are driving the biggest threat to that future? At a time when the Australian government is refusing to take serious climate action, divestment signals a very real way forward. 

Take your Big Four banks, for example, who have lent $70 billion to new fossil fuel projects since 2008. They and other global lenders can help decide the future of such projects as the Adani coalmine – a climate time bomb. To go ahead, that mine will almost certainly need funding, and lenders have a choice as to whether to be part of a project that threatens a safe climate future. 

This is where the power of divestment is manifest: as more and more institutions move away from banks such as Commonwealth, which has handed $2.2 billion to the fossil fuel industry since publicly committing to align its lending with a 2ºC world, the pressure it places on these institutions will, I believe, make fossil fuels as toxic to investors as tobacco. Add to this the ever-increasing risk of fossil fuels becoming stranded assets.

If your government won’t be accountable on climate, we can force financial institutions to take note. And some already have. The NAB has ruled out funding Adani’s mega coalmine; Australia’s biggest super fund has felt the wind of change and is now offering a “fossil-free option”; La Trobe University and Queensland University of Technology have dumped their investments in the worst coal, oil and gas companies; dozens of local governments have favoured banks that don’t lend to fossil fuels over those that do.

While it’s disheartening to see climate change deniers taking centre stage in the political arena, it’s inspiring to see what people, communities, universities, churches can do on their own. Every day the momentum is growing – politicians must either heed the call or risk becoming irrelevant as the world moves from polluting fossil fuels to the clean energy future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "How to stop lends and influence people". Subscribe here.

Bill McKibben
is an author, environmentalist and founder of global climate change movement 350.org.