Divest Waltham Forest campaigner Rob Platts hopes a landmark victory inspires others around UK
On 22nd September 2016 Waltham Forest made history with one simple sentence: “Agree that the pension fund will exclude fossil fuels from its strategy over the next five years.”
This was a recommendation from the council’s director of finance to the pension fund committee, and it was passed unanimously. Waltham Forest Council thus became the first local authority pension fund in the country to fully commit to fossil fuel divestment.
This means an estimated £23.9million will be moved out of the fossil fuel industry by our council in the next five years. As the committee chairman put it: “Not only does this mean that the fund will not be invested in stranded assets, but will be actively investing in cleaner, greener investments to the benefit of our community, borough, and environment.”
The divestment tactic was previously successful in shaming the reputation of the South African apartheid government, by pressuring investors to move their money out of funds related to the immoral regime. Environmentalists are now seeking to use the same campaigning method to highlight just how morally unsound it is to invest in companies that are not only destroying our environment but have spread lies and deception on the science of climate change, a global problem which they exacerbate.
There has now been trillions of dollars removed from the fossil fuel industry all around the world, as investors wake up to the reality of the carbon bubble, and the ‘stranded assets’ of fossil fuel reserves. These cannot be extracted if we are to keep to our pledge in the Paris Agreement of avoiding a 2°C temperature rise. Organisations such as 350.org, GoFossilFree, Platform and Friends of the Earth all continue to campaign on this issue, targeting local authority pension funds, trade union pension funds, and funds related to faith groups and universities.
After our success here in Waltham Forest, several groups have been asking for tips or advice we may have to share. We had a lot of luck, and a lot of help from the excellent resources available online from the groups mentioned above. We started a petition to collect signatures of local residents who supported our campaign. We organised screenings for two films, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and 350.org’s Do The Math, for local residents and green groups to rally behind.
The pension fund is usually the largest pot of funds available to a council, so we set our sights on our local one, and the committee of councillors which oversee it. From the very beginning we included those councillors in our campaign, wanting to show a spirit of openness and co-operation. Bad investments were a problem we wanted to fix together.
We tried to emphasise that we didn’t want to cause any additional problems for our local public servants, who I’m sure work very hard on such thoroughly boring subjects as pension fund investments. However, by implication this also hints that we could indeed cause them a problem of bad publicity if they did not hear our arguments. This paid off straight away, as we found our champion in the pension fund committee chairman, Councillor Simon Miller.
Councillor Miller showed immediate sympathy for the cause, meeting up with us to discuss the issues, which he was already aware of, and the path towards change. Soon he invited us to make a presentation to the committee in person. I’m not sure about the other campaigners but at that point, making a speech to the council, I felt way out of my depth! It really forced me to read up and know all the arguments inside and out. Perhaps, by speaking in person, we were able to make a theoretical problem become much more tangible for the committee.
Having laid out our moral standpoint, we continued to collect signatures for our petition. However, once we knew there were progressive discussions being held with the council, we did not prioritise reaching a huge list of names. Instead, we kept up the pressure by sharing the latest divestment news and developments with councillors, reminding them that this is a big issue that won’t go away.
I’m sure some other councillors around the country may need considerable public pressure to reach such a decision. However, in our case I believe it was the sound financial reasoning and compelling ethical arguments being heard all around the world, which eventually swayed the committee to make their decision, as well as the leadership and co-operation shown by Councillor Miller.
I would advise other campaigns to first try to work with the councillors or fund managers to improve the security of their investments, rather than taking a stand against them from the very start. Of course, Waltham Forest Council has much work to do in implementing this ruling over the next five years, while sticking to a strict fiduciary duty which makes them responsible for ensuring there is a decent return on investments to keep their pension fund afloat. If there is any way we can aid this transition away from fossil fuel investments while adhering to financial guidelines, we will certainly share them.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Waltham Forest Friends of The Earth, 350.org, GoFossilFree, PlatformLondon and Greenpeace Waltham Forest for all their support and hard work to make this campaign a success.
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