Scientists must speak up on fossil-fuel divestment

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The editors call it “eat-your-pies” journalism — stories that are actually good for you, if not nearly as enjoyable as the latest news about Jeremy Clarkson or the breakfast television presenter’s wardrobe malfunction.

Climate change is the ultimate eat-your-peas journalism. At some stage most people are aware that they should be deeply concerned about it. On another level, they just aren’t. Maybe it’s too scary to think about. The story keeps changing from day to day. And, anyway, there seems to be little that anyone can do about it. A hopeless fatalism settles on this subject. News editors shrugged and changed the subject.

But what if the climate story is the most important news story on Earth—in the sense that, if we can’t find a solution, our children and grandchildren may inherit a planet that’s perfect for that kind of civilization. Have a deep enemy we enjoy?

I pondered this question at home over Christmas. I had been editing The Guardian for almost 20 years and announced that I would be stepping down in the summer of 2015. Was there still something left in my time as editor – an opportunity to focus on something sharp and focused on climate change? Something that would make people wolf down with its pea flavor?

I had the words of American author and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben on my mind: This thing has gone beyond the pages of the environment. Scientists and ecologists have done a great job over the years, but now the essentials are settled. The climate story has moved into the fields of politics, finance and economics. That’s how you have to write a story to make an impact.

Newspaper campaigns can energize and inspire people in a way that ordinary reporting sometimes does not. The Guardian toyed with the idea of ​​targeting such a campaign at policy-makers, but eating broccoli was more like it. Targeting big, bad and familiar targets in fossil-fuel industries would have been easier, but probably not as effective.

McKibben convinced us to focus on the three numbers that could determine the future of our species. The first, 2 °C, is the internationally agreed warming limit for dangerous climate-change impacts. The second figure is the amount of additional carbon dioxide emissions that are likely to push us above that limit. The final figure is the amount of carbon dioxide that would be produced if all of the world’s known fossil-fuel reserves were extracted and burned.

Of course, there is uncertainty about these numbers. And as we increasingly burn fossil fuels, they present a dynamic target. But what is very clear is that the third figure is much higher than the second – three to five times higher in fact. Therefore most of the oil, gas and coal reserves can never be allowed to be dug up. And fossil-fuel companies shouldn’t be wasting investor capital prospecting for more such reserves.

Companies with these reserves are almost certainly highly valued, and it is dominating many people – from central bankers to investment-fund managers, trust leaders, CEOs, universities and non-governmental organizations.

But not everyone agrees on how to respond. Some oppose the idea that disinvestment from fossil fuels would replace ‘good’ with ‘bad’ money. Or that it is their duty to get maximum return. Or that having money in these companies makes the ‘good’ people ‘engaged’ and exerts some influence.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are some ‘good’ organizations that have so far refused to take their money out of oil, gas and coal. There are few better foundations in the field of science and medicine than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. They fund vast amounts of money for projects and research that save countless lives and advance human knowledge and understanding. There is almost nothing to not like about them.

But no foundation will take its money from companies that may not be allowed to extract and burn all their hydrocarbons.

And so, as part of our campaign, Put it in the Ground, we’ve asked these organizations – with humility and respect, but with determination – to think again. More than 180,000 readers have signed a petition asking him to reconsider. And, in case you were to ask, the Guardian Media Group has, in the space of two months, without really thinking too much about the issue, announced that its £800-million (US$1.2-5) fossil fuels within years.

Wellcome’s excuse – that he prefers to “engage” with fossil-fuel giants – seems weak. It has offered no evidence of tangible benefit from the strategy. If Wellcome can indeed point to the fruits of the engagement, it must – like good scientists – demonstrate evidence, not business secrecy, behind.

Likewise, if Gates wants to demonstrate that the good he does outweigh the harmful activities he helps fund, he must come forward and make that matter public.

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