In the late 1980s, global climate campaigner Al Gore and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu served together on Harvard University’s apartheid divestment campaign, which led to Harvard divesting its endowment from South African stocks.
This week, as planetary emergency ripped across Australia and other parts of the world, the global activist icons met in Cape Town to discuss the growing global movement towards fossil-fuel divestment. This followed the gauntlet that Gore threw on the university’s doorstep in May 2019, urging his alma mater to divest its $40-billion endowment of fossil fuel investments.
Gathered through the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, Tutu and Gore warned in a joint statement that “corporations, governments and institutions that continue to invest in fossil fuels despite all the evidence of their effect on accelerating climate change are furthering environmental, economic and social injustice”.
The Nobel laureates noted that “fossil fuels drive northern hemisphere industrialisation and development” — but that developing countries, especially in the southern hemisphere “could least afford to mitigate the impacts of climate change and would bear the highest costs”.
Southern Africa, a climate hotspot, according to the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C report, is one such region: it’s warming at twice the global rate — that means double the 3°C surface temperature that Earth is expected to reach within this century in a business-as-usual scenario.
In real terms, climate chaos has already entrenched itself in extreme weather across the region. Drought and cyclones have left millions of people severely food insecure during the current lean season, widening the inequality gap and amplifying climate apartheid — a phenomenon that connects to Tutu and Gore’s collaboration stretching back to 1980s divestment.
On the other side of the Indian Ocean, in recent weeks the mercury has hit nearly 50ºC in a hotter and drier Australia. The crisis conditions have fuelled bushfires of such crushing ferocity that they have created their own thunderstorms, leaving tens of people dead, brutally snuffing out half a billion animals — and possibly driving whole species to functional extinction. This ecological catastrophe of unimaginable scale indicates the undiscriminating costs of economic dependence on fossil fuels: not even developed nations led by climate sceptics such as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are immune to the hydra of atmospheric warming.
To individuals, institutions, industries and countries who “remained invested in fossil fuels”, Tutu and Gore recommended “urgently committing to clear and actionable plans to shift their investments to renewable sources of energy. Investing in renewable energy systems and research would provide the necessary impetus to drive down costs and increase demand for clean energy…
“Any organisation committed to operating responsibly in this new decade has a moral imperative to stop participating in financing the destruction of human civilisation’s future,” they said, citing student activists in the 1960s US civil-rights campaign and apartheid South Africa as lodestars for the Greta Thunberg generation, and its ongoing protests against vested fossil fuel interests.
“It is fortuitous and timely for the foundation to facilitate this brief meeting of two stalwarts of the global struggle for environmental sustainability and justice,” foundation CEO Piyushi Kotecha told Our Burning Planet. Gore was in Cape Town en route to Antarctica.
“Both worked together in an early and progressive struggle in the 1980s — and in the 1990s Vice President Gore was dubbed ‘Ozone Man’ due to his repeated references to climate change. Two more consistent voices would be difficult to find.”
In recent years, divesting from fossil fuels has become a cornerstone of the clean-energy movement. According to global climate-justice organisation 350.org, hundreds of institutions and local governments, among others, have pledged to divest from fossil fuels. This momentum, it says, represents more than *$12-trillion in assets.
In South Africa in December, the University of Cape Town’s Convocation, the body comprising all alumni and academic staff, voted in favour of a motion calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Inspired by 350.org, the Fossil Free South Africa-led motion challenged the university’s authorities to “become the first South African and African university to commit loudly and publicly to fossil fuel divestment”.
“For a climate research institution like the University of Cape Town to continue investing in fossil fuels is rather like a doctor smoking in front of patients,” the campaign said in a statement. “It is a particularly destructive example of treating dangerous behaviour as normal.”
Like Harvard’s activist campaign Fossil Fuel Divest, the University of Cape Town’s divestment drive is ongoing. DM
*This article was amended to reflect an accurate figure of assets.