The Guardian divestment campaign is hugely welcome, but banks, pension funds, and regulators now need to make divesting simple
Hats off to the Guardian. The paper of choice of liberal eco-warriors everywhere has got off to an impressive start with the climate change campaign that will act as editor Alan Rusbridger's swan song.
The decision to give climate change its rightful place on the cover has no doubt had an impact, the paper has looked fantastic, and the long reads on the climate threat have been thought-provoking, if at times contentious. The focus on divestment that was announced this week is completely the right decision. The carbon bubble and the answerable moral and financial logic of divestment are arguably the biggest developments in climate field in years and the Guardian has rightly identified the area it can have the most impact. The paper has also cleverly split its campaign into a general push for wider divestment and a specific call for the Wellcome Trust and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to quit fossil fuels, giving it a genuine chance of some kind of tangible victory.
Personally, I would love to see a bit more focus on the business and technology-led effort to tackle climate change, a bit more optimism, a bit more on the appeal of green freedom and New Environmentalism. But perhaps that will come in the next few weeks. Equally, as a number of Guardian columnists have already acknowledged there is a risk the paper is preaching to the converted with its climate push and could even contribute to a partisan left-right divide on climate action that will make decarbonisation ever harder.
However, if the campaign deserves plaudits for this week's call for divestment it also raises the crucial question as to how, precisely, people should divest. In his article this week, Rusbridger promises "our own campaign will give readers the information they need to make their own investment decisions and to apply pressure on the workplaces, unions, schools, colleges, churches, NGOs, pension advisers and charities in their lives". This is hugely welcome, but most people who are interested in climate change already know what this advice will constitute. Move your money to an ethical bank, invest directly in renewables projects, instruct your pension to focus on clean funds, ask your employer to do likewise, sign petitions, make a fuss.
This is all good advice, but how does it help the vast majority of people who are temperamentally ill-suited to making a fuss? Who really wants to be the guy or girl who tells their boss the workplace pension scheme is good, but can we get rid of the fossil fuel bits? How do you reach the millions of people who are too busy or risk averse to move money into green banks and funds they have never heard of? We all know the statistics about people being more likely to change their husband or wife before they change their bank. The divestment campaign has made rapid and impressive progress, but it faces a major battle overcoming the investment inertia and indifference of the average citizen.
Yes, I know we should make time to divest, should prioritise these issues, should take action. And yes, even if we don't embrace divestment the moral and financial pressure applied by those who boast a more pronounced campaigning instinct can still have a major impact. But how much more successful would the divestment campaign be if it was easier to divest?
Here's what I'd love to see. Every High Street bank offering at least one of the credible and attractive Green ISA products that George Osborne promised five years ago and singularly failed to deliver. Every pension firm and workplace pensions scheme offering at least one climate fund that explicitly excludes fossil fuel assets. The immediate launch of the government-backed green bonds Labour has promised to introduce. A more ambitious community energy strategy that provides crowd-funded renewables projects with all the tax breaks and support they need to convince the average investor they are a safe bet. And clear and enforceable regulations requiring firms to report on the climate risks they face in much the same way they report on financial risks, because, after all, these risks are often one and the same.
It is a remarkably modest package of proposals, but it is one which would make it far easier for millions of people to actually divest. I have nothing but admiration for those people who shop around for the best green investment opportunities, but most of us are not that financially savvy and there is not a newspaper campaign in the world that will change that. What us financial ingenues need is the ability to walk into a High Street bank and tell them to just move my ISA into a green ISA. Yes, I am phenomenally lazy when it comes to savings, but I'd wager millions of people are just as lazy. From pensions to bonds, there is pent up demand for trusted and established companies that can offer easy to navigate green financial products. The hugely admirable early stage green investment platforms are perfect for the astute early adopters embracing the green investment trend, but for divestment to really take off the wider finance industry needs to play a more proactive role.
From energy efficiency loans to green ISAs and climate bonds, the banking sector's inability to offer more mainstream green products is yet another one of the myriad ways in which the financial industry has failed us all in recent years. But it is also one of the banking failures that is the easiest to correct with just a little bit of political and commercial will.
The Guardian and the global divestment campaign have done an impressive job making the case for divestment, but what the campaign needs now (and will hopefully deliver in the coming years) is a focus on the mechanics of helping people divest. Fund managers and institutional investors may be able to wind down their fossil fuel assets over time, but what of the rest of us? How can we make actively joining the divestment campaign a simple, low risk, and, most importantly, low-hassle mainstream activity? Perhaps this should be the topic of the Guardian's next front page splash.
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