Month: September 2022

Bill McKibben Discusses A Decade-Long Activist Crusade To Shame Banks Into Stopping Investment In Fossil Fuels

When Bill McKibben sought to put the fossil fuel industry out of business, he made his case in the media. Then he took his show on the road.

Hitting roughly 27 cities in 29 days in the fall of 2012, the prominent American author, climate activist and co-founder of sold out venues across the United States, introducing thousands to the idea that by pressuring institutions — universities, faith-based groups, banks, pension funds — ordinary people could force huge sums of money away from the coal, oil and gas companies fuelling the climate crisis. By the time the roadshow wrapped up, calls for divestment were sprouting on 300 college campuses nationwide.

The movement only grew from there. Today, as lethal flooding and heat waves put climate action front and centre around the world, a global campaign to divest from fossil fuels has taken hold in boardrooms, on university campuses, among faith groups and beyond. Earlier this year, that campaign reached a milestone: more than 1,500 institutions with $40 trillion in assets under management committed to divesting from fossil fuels.

In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, McKibben unpacks the ties between fossil fuels and colonialism, the art of shifting an industry’s social licence to operate and how the movement is spawning a new generation of politically engaged citizens on college campuses around the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Today’s push to divest from fossil fuels was inspired in part by earlier divestment campaigns against South African apartheid. Why was this such an effective strategy?
Back in apartheid times, there were relatively few levers that people had in the west to put pressure on South Africa. This was the Reagan era, so the government wasn’t going to do anything. But pressuring South Africa’s financial backers proved very useful. So when we were thinking about this, one of the first people that I got in contact with was Desmond Tutu, who had won the Nobel in part for his work around that, and I said, “Do you mind if we borrow this tactic?” ’Cause we didn’t want to just do it without asking, and he said, “Please, please. If apartheid was the human rights issue of a generation ago, then climate change is the human rights issue of now.” And he went on to be very helpful on this work, including managing to get King’s College London, which was one of his alma maters, to divest from fossil fuels. And so that connection back to apartheid was really crucial because it taught people how to do this.

Can you talk about the other link between South Africa and North America: the shared history of oppression of Indigenous groups by a settler group. What are the similarities and differences, and how does divestment work as a strategy in that context?
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the fossil fuel industry is the perfect example of a colonial enterprise. Fossil fuel is concentrated in a few places around the world, so controlling those places is key. It’s why the fossil fuel industry hates renewable energy so much. The sun is diffuse and exists everywhere, so there is no way to monopolize its output. This has been a link all the way back to the beginning of this work on the financing of fossil fuels.

The first divestment push I heard of was the work Indigenous leaders in Canada were doing around the tarsands — going over to Europe to try and get banks to stop financing them.

That tactic, thinking about the financing of all this, has a history and much of that history is tied up with the powerful use of it by Indigenous communities.



A lot of the push for divestment is coming from college and university campuses. For many of the young activists, it’s their first time, getting involved in social movements. Does divestment then function as an on-ramp to the climate movement more generally?
Yes, and this one’s not speculative because the history is extraordinarily clear. Probably the most important part of the recent environmental movement in the States, at least politically, is the Sunrise Movement, which brought us the Green New Deal and the legislation that descended from it. They shook up things. Almost all of the leaders of the Sunrise Movement, the people who founded it, cut their teeth doing divestment work in college and wanted to keep on after graduation and moved onto politics, in a sense.

Sunrise’s founding executive director, Varshini Prakash, successfully led the fight to divest from fossil fuel when she was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts. It was an early win in the divestment campaign.

So there’s no question that by allowing this fight to go on at thousands of different places, it’s brought up thousands and thousands of able leaders.

How does the fossil fuel divestment movement fit with other tactics?
It’s always going to be a multi-pronged strategy, but all of it is aimed at, in the largest sense, weakening the power of the fossil fuel industry. Our analysis from the beginning identified this as the single biggest factor standing in the way of doing what scientists, economists and everyone else is telling us we should be doing. Without that vested interest, we’d be making way more progress. So the social licence part was our original goal, and I think it’s been highly effective in that way. Young people are no longer under any illusions about the fossil fuel industry, for instance. They understand it to be a predatory, self-interested [industry] that’s imperilling their future in obvious ways. The whole divestment movement got big enough that it began to interfere with industry’s ability to access capital. This was clearest early on, especially in the coal industry, where you begin to hear executives complain they couldn’t raise money anymore because there were so many funds that were closed to them.

When Peabody Coal filed for bankruptcy some years ago, they listed divestment as one of the reasons. Divestment has now extended into the oil and gas realm. Shell, in its annual report two or three years ago, said divestment had become a material risk to its business, which pleased me because Shell’s business is a material risk to life on the planet. So having taken $40 trillion off the table for these guys is no small feat, I think.

All of this has led to a profound shift in the zeitgeist and the understanding of what’s normal, natural and obvious. When we began, these oil companies were the biggest companies in the world, and their power seemed unassailable. They’re still very strong but they’re shadows of themselves in certain ways, too.

No tactic wins by itself. There are many fronts in this fight, but divestment has been an important one. It’s helped people understand straight-ahead politics is not the only way. You can make change in [other] ways. The metaphor in my mind is that there are two levers big enough to make change in the climate picture at this point. One of those levers is marked politics, the other is marked money.

Instinctively, we pull the politics lever because it seems like that’s where change comes. But I think it’s been important that we’ve been yanking on this other lever, too.

The DNC Moves To Block Debate On Dark Money, But We Won’t Quit

The stakes are too high for Democrats – and democracy – to let our party’s primaries turn into auctions won by the highest bidder.

Last week, Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer and I appeared before the party’s Resolution Committee at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in National Harbor, Md. We were there to speak in favor of our resolution calling on the party to ban the use of “dark money” in Democratic primaries.

We made the decision to introduce our resolution because, as Democrats, we believe that our elections shouldn’t be shaped by the corrupting influence of special interests able to spend millions to silence those who oppose them.

Despite the 2020 Democratic Party platform directly calling for a ban on unregulated, non-reportable expenditures from PACs and 501c4 groups, this year alone we saw tens of millions of dark money dollars spent targeting progressive candidates across the country – including races in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, and more. For example, $6 million in dark money was spent to defeat former Maryland representative Donna Edwards, more than $4 million to defeat Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, and another $4 million to defeat Jessica Cisneros in Texas. Even progressives who won – Representative Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Representative Cori Bush (Mo.), and Pennsylvania state Senator Summer Lee – had to withstand an onslaught of a combined $10 million in negative ads designed to tarnish their reputations.

Because it appeared that some of the party’s leadership was not displeased with the effort to stop the advance of progressive candidates, we knew we had an uphill fight. For several reasons, however, we felt certain that at least we would start a much-needed debate on this critical issue.

Progressive leaders in the party like Senator Bernie Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus made clear their support for our effort. Leading progressive publications like The Nation and organizations like Progressive Democrats and Our Revolution wrote about it and urged readers and members to show their support. It’s important to note, as well, that our resolution had been endorsed by over three dozen other DNC members.

Given this support from an important component wing of the party and the fact that our resolution was grounded in the party’s own platform, what happened at the meeting left me shell-shocked.

We introduced the resolution and spoke about why it was important, mentioning the damage that dark money does to our democracy and to the reputation of candidates slandered by the ads purchased by these shadowy groups. We explained the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that the massive expenditures create in voters who see elections bought and sold by the highest bidders.

In her powerful statement to the committee, Judith Whitmer noted:

Letting our primaries devolve into auctions, rather than elections, has done more than simply create an unequal and unfair playing field. In races around the nation, we’ve seen these underhanded tactics used to silence debate on critical issues, with competing views buried under an avalanche of dark money-funded messaging. This same anonymity has been used to not only defeat capable Democratic candidates but to smear their names and tear down their reputations. Faced with the prospect of an uneven playing field tilted by millions in untraceable funds, many would-be candidates have been discouraged from running at all—costing our party not just young leaders but the trust of underrepresented and marginalized communities we most need to reach. While any one of those issues alone would be cause for action, most alarming of all has been the insidious effect dark money has had on faith in our democracy.

And she concluded with:

Our elections are not for sale. Every voice in our party deserves an equal say, and every vision deserves a free and fair chance. Our democracy is only as strong as the public’s faith in it. It’s up to our party to lead by example.

After our presentation, the Resolutions Committee chair asked if any member of the committee wanted to put our resolution up for a vote. There was dead silence in the room. With not one of the two dozen committee members in attendance willing to call for a vote, the resolution died.

I had been a member of the resolutions committee for over two decades and served as its chair for 10 years. During my tenure I saw how staff, under the direction of party leaders, would work to whip votes to defeat resolutions they deemed unacceptable. Because members of the committee are all appointed by the chair, many feel they need to accept direction to stay in the good graces of the party.

I had a similar experience in February of 2003 when party leaders and staff browbeat members of the committee to oppose my resolution calling on Democrats to oppose the Iraq War. Because I refused to withdraw my resolution, I was allowed to introduce it and speak on its behalf. And then, as now, I was forced to watch as the party faithful sat in silence and accepted the chair’s call to refuse that the resolution be considered for a vote.

During my time as chair, I rejected this practice. I wanted resolutions to be debated and voted on. It’s called democracy. What happened to our resolution last week was the opposite of democracy. It wasn’t just that that the party gave a pass to dark money groups to continue to despoil our elections. It was also the use of pressure by party leaders to silence debate and refuse to allow a vote in the resolutions committee on an issue of importance to the future of our party and democracy itself.

As Democrats, we are right to be concerned about the dangers posed by Republican state legislatures acting to make it more difficult to vote; false claims about voting machines; and the continued threat of violence by extremist groups. Given this, it is deeply troubling to watch our party fail to protect the integrity of our own primary contests by refusing to act to ban dark money groups from spending millions of unreported dollars raised from billionaires (including Republicans) to smear and silence progressive voices.

Because we believe that banning dark money is vital to future of our democracy and our party, we will not be defeated. We will return at the DNC winter meeting with stronger support—more endorsements from DNC members, members of Congress, and Democrats nationwide. Because we now know how the game is being played, we will work to insure a debate and a vote on this critical issue.

A Milestone In Holding People Accountable For Jan. 6

A New Mexico judge has done the country a big favor.

Judge Francis Mathew upheld a little-known provision of the U.S. Constitution and removed a public official for participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. I hope other judges have the courage to follow his lead.

The principle that no person is above the law — that powerful people have to obey the laws like everyone else — is essential to a democratic society. If this principle is not enforced, corrupt leaders will undermine the rule of law and democracy itself.

Judge Mathew ruled that a county commissioner who participated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol can no longer hold public office. The ruling was based on a section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed after the Civil War. It forbids anyone from holding public office if they had taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the country.

The judge found that Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin helped lead the mob that used violence to try to prevent Congress from affirming Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election. Griffin later bragged about his role and suggested that there might be another insurrection coming.

Judge Mathew’s ruling is a milestone in the effort to hold public officials accountable for trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It should provide a road map — and some moral courage — to other judges considering legal efforts to hold state legislators and others accountable for trying to undermine democracy.

Another important effort to hold powerful people accountable for the insurrection is being conducted by the House Select Committee investigating the insurrection and the schemes that led up to it.

The committee’s public hearings this summer gave the American people a powerful dose of truth telling about the lies and deceptions of Trump, members of his legal team and his political allies. The committee’s investigation is continuing, and we can look forward to more public hearings this fall.

Members and staff of the committee have spent countless hours digging through emails and other public records, and interviewing former Trump administration officials and lawyers, members of Congress and far-right activists who promoted Trump’s lies about election fraud. They are still at it. Among the people they hope to interview this fall are former Vice President Mike Pence, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and far-right activist Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Truth is a first step toward accountability. But it cannot be the only step.

The committee’s efforts to get a full picture of the illegal scheming to overturn the election is essential. So is punishing wrongdoers and preventing future attempts to subvert our elections.

There are plenty of wrongdoers who need to be held accountable, punished and prevented from using powerful government positions to undermine democracy and the rule of law. And that includes former President Trump, whose lies about a “stolen” election fueled the insurrectionists’ anger.

In our system of government, there are many people with roles to play in defending our democracy. Congress can use its oversight power to reveal the corruption within the White House. The Justice Department can prosecute criminals like those who attacked the Capitol Police and those who broke other laws as they tried desperately to keep the defeated Trump in power. Judges can hold public officials accountable for violating the Constitution.

And we the voters can defend democracy by electing local, state and national officials who are committed to the democratic process — and rejecting those who seek power for the purpose of interfering with our elections and our ability to hold powerful people accountable.

Dear America, What’s With All The Religious Labels?

Back in the 1960s, Americans were deeply divided on matters of war and race – and Christians in America were on both sides of the divide.

While Martin Luther King Jr and religious leaders associated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led protests and committed acts of civil disobedience demanding civil rights, they were countered by white Christian preachers in the south who warned of the dangers of violating God’s will by ignoring the punishment God had meted out to the “sons of Ham”. And while New York’s Catholic cardinal Francis Spellman travelled to Vietnam to bless US troops as they battled “godless communism”, a Jesuit priest named Daniel Berrigan led fellow clergymen and women in protests against the war, often resulting in their arrest and imprisonment (in one case, for burning the Selective Service files of young men who were to be drafted to serve in the military).

During this entire period, Christianity wasn’t described as a warlike or racist faith. Nor were King and Berrigan referred to as “Christian protesters”. There weren’t any drawn-out theological debates in an effort to determine which interpretation of Christianity was correct. Rather these individuals were defined by what they did. There were either “segregationists” or “civil rights leaders”, not “Christian segregationists” or “Christian civil rights leaders”. They were “supporters of the war” or “peace activists, not “Christian supporters of the war” or “Christian peace activists”.

What may have been understood, at least implicitly, was that just because a person or institution uses religious language to validate certain behaviours, that does not make their behaviour “religious”. Nor does this behaviour define, by itself, the religion to which the person or institution adheres. This is something that many of us in the West still understand, at least when it comes to Christianity. Despite former president George W Bush indicating that America was carrying out God’s will in the Iraq war, we knew not to refer to that conflict as a “Christian” war. This understanding, however, has not carried over to our discussion of Islam.

For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, when dealing with Islam, political leaders, media commentators and ordinary folk here in the West appear intent on using religious language to describe every aspect of life and all forms of behaviour, both good and bad, as “Muslim”. In doing so, we create confusion for ourselves and others, leading at times, to incoherence and some very strange policies.

For example, faced with the threat of individuals and groups using the religious language of Islam to validate their acts of terror, we refer to them as “Muslim terrorists”. But then because we recognise that they represent only a tiny fraction of Muslims, we maintain that they “don’t speak for Islam”. This then leads us down the tortuous path of attempting to define what is “good” Islam versus “bad” Islam – creating a kind of “state-sanctioned” interpretation of a faith – something we understood not to do when it involves Christianity.

Another example: a colleague, for whom I have the greatest respect, wrote a book in which he first correctly debunks the notion of “Muslim terrorists”, but then goes on to write a chapter about “Muslim oil” – by which he means oil coming from the Middle East and Central Asian and some African countries. If “Muslim oil” can be defined in this way, does that make US and Canadian oil “Christian” or “secular democratic” oil? Should we consider Venezuelan oil “Bolivarian” oil?

You may recall when the Obama White House sponsored a summit for “Muslim entrepreneurs” – which they described as focusing on entrepreneurs from “Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities around the world”. Aside from troubling questions about what message this sends to businesspeople from the Arab world or Indonesia or elsewhere who may not be Muslim, or what local sectarian tensions such an effort may exacerbate, what exactly is a “Muslim entrepreneur”? Or, for that matter, what is a “Christian entrepreneur” or “Hindu entrepreneur”?

We continue to hold the line on treating Christianity and the acts of its nominal adherents in a similar fashion. When former president Donald Trump had troops disperse Black Lives Matter demonstrators in front of the White House so he that could march through Lafayette Square and pose in front of St John’s Church holding up a Bible, was that a Christian action? When Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, proclaims himself to be a “Christian nationalist”, do we accept that at face value?

At the end of the day, there are xenophobic nationalists, there are terrorists, there is oil, and there are people who start up and run businesses. They are better defined by what they do and not by their faith. For government or the rest of us to insist on defining them by faith, or even how they describe themselves or how they define their actions, is at best careless. It also runs the risk of western governments treading into the murky waters of defining “good” or acceptable religion, or of applying a religious litmus test on groups which, in itself, makes a political statement that is most certainly none of our business, and can be dangerous.