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The 160 signatories to the letter want philanthropists to invest in clean energy instead of dirty fuels. (Photo: Asian Development Bank)

Divest/Invest: Global Charities Challenged to Help 'Save Civilization'

Could world's wealthy philanthropic foundations spur a 'tipping point' on climate action?

Deirdre Fulton

A group of 160 leading environmentalists is calling on the world's philanthropists and foundations to use their money to "create a tipping point on climate change."

The collection of activists, celebrities, and scientists—all winners of environmental prizes and representing 46 countries among them—make their case in a full-page ad in the international edition of Monday's New York Times.

The "Environmental Laureates Declaration on Climate Change" reads, in part:

Terrified that we will lose our ability to feed ourselves, run out of potable water, increase the scope for war, and cause the very fabric of civilization to crash as a consequence of the climate change that global overheating will bring about; devastated that our governments have not succeeded yet in slowing, much less stopping, the flow of greenhouse gases into our thin atmosphere, in the full knowledge of these risks, despite a quarter century of trying; aware that the UN Climate Summit in Paris in December 2015 may be the last chance to agree on a treaty capable of saving civilization; on foundations and philanthropists everywhere to deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilization.

The declaration was circulated for signatures by the European Environment Foundation (EEF), which will now write letters to individual philanthropies urging them to help in these ways:

  • By investing directly in clean energy companies and low-carbon projects;
  • By withdrawing investments from fossil fuel companies or campaigning as shareholders for them not to develop new reserves;
  • By making grants to support clean energy start-ups and stimulate the development of low-carbon markets.

A Q&A at the EEF site notes that this declaration is focused on philanthropy in part because many of the laureates’ prizes are sponsored by foundations—giving them special influence with such groups—and also because "foundations' substantial financial resources, prestigious supporters and reputations make them well-placed to 'trigger' further action by others including companies, investors and governments."

"A small shift in the collective focus of foundations, and/or an acceleration by foundations already working on climate change, could make a big difference," writes Jeremy Leggett, chairman of Carbon Tracker and coordinator of the declaration, in a post at Responding to Climate Change. "If they broadened and deepened their activities in line with the magnitude of the threat, this could well create space for a tipping point in climate action of all kinds."

Earlier this year, more than a dozen philanthropies with an asset base of nearly $2 billion (including the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust) announced their commitment to divest from fossil fuels and invest in the new energy economy, an effort known as the Divest-Invest Initiative. More than a dozen colleges and universities have also pledged to divest their endowments from fossil fuels. Groups like have spurred numerous cities, towns, religious groups, and other institutions to divest.

"If these trends continue in the rest of 2014 and 2015—as they look very much like doing—then negotiators may sit down in Paris with a sense that 'the markets are already moving' in their direction of travel—i.e. towards significantly less burning of fossil fuels in the future—so making their task of negotiating meaningful targets and timetables easier," Leggett writes.

According to Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit promoting investment practices that incorporate long-term environmental and social risks, the world needs to invest an additional $44 trillion in clean energy—more than $1 trillion per year for the next 36 years—in order to limit global warming to 2° Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

But in an edited extract from her forthcoming book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate, published Friday at the Guardian, Naomi Klein questions the effectiveness of employing inherently capitalist approaches to mitigating climate change:

The idea that only capitalism can save the world from a crisis it created is no longer an abstract theory; it's a hypothesis that has been tested in the real world. We can now take a hard look at the results: at the green products shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were meant to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed to cut emissions. And, most of all, at the billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided, on second thoughts, that the old one was just too profitable to surrender.

Still, she acknowledges that investors and corporations are in a unique position "to do precisely what our governments have been unwilling to legislate: channel the profits earned from warming the planet into the costly transition away from these dangerous energy sources."

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