Bringing the fossil fuel divestment conversation to the UN climate talks

Bringing the fossil fuel divestment conversation to the UN climate talks

Thanks to the support of the YCEI COP Fellowship, I am representing Fossil Free Yale at an international Fossil Free gathering at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP 19) in Warsaw. Fossil Free is a movement born in response to international inaction on meaningful climate agreements. Thus, Fossil Free has come to COP 19 to bring our message to the international negotiations. Together with youth-led NGOs, SustainUS and the United Kingdom Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), we are leading a side event on Friday, November 15 on The Potential of Divestment: Changing the Landscape of Climate Politics and Its Relevance to 2015.

Divestment uses the power of investing to change the world. It is a tried and true tactic for shedding light on pariah industries; divestment campaigns have been applied to big tobacco, apartheid in South Africa, armaments, gambling, and pornography. According to analysis by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, “the direct financial impact of such campaigns on share prices or the ability to raise funds is small but the reputational damage can still have major financial consequences.” In other words, divestment’s impact isn’t on an industry’s bottom line, it is on the industry’s reputation. We want to turn big oil into big tobacco – an industry that politicians cannot be seen standing next to.

So what does this have to do with COP19? COP19 is the first UN climate negotiations with official corporate sponsorship. Personally, I have found the corporate presence to be quite palpable. As you enter the conference hall, you pass a shiny BMW on display. If you need a rest between plenaries, kick back in any one of the hundreds of bright red Emirates beanbag chairs lining the halls. Other corporate partners include ArcelorMittal, the world’s leading integrated steel and mining company. These are corporations with a lot to lose if the international community actually reached an agreement with real teeth. As Jamie Henn, co-founder and communications director at 350.org, puts it, “industry should not have a seat at the table they are burning.”

Divestment targets corporate influences by calling on institutions to put their money where their mouth is. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. Following this logic, I would argue that respected institutions like the UNFCCC and Yale University should not be financially benefitting from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, I think they should leverage their power to create political change by leading the way to a more sustainable and equitable future.

November 17 marks the first day of Yale College student referendum on divestment. Undergraduate Yalies are asked to decide whether they support the divestment of Yale’s endowment from the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel companies. Though the divestment campaign at Yale – known as Fossil Free Yale – and the referendum are centered on the university, the progress we make at Yale contributes to the much larger international movement.

Diana Madson is a YCEI COP Fellow and MEM Candidate (2014) at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She can be reached at diana.madson@yale.edu