What do you expect from the Paris summit? Should we be optimistic?
We need to be very realistic. If we think about where we were at this point before Copenhagen – there were better signs in terms of willingness of governments in the global South to really fight at the negotiating table. We had the African bloc pledging that they would walk out of negotiations if they weren’t happy with the deal. We had Ecuador and Bolivia both championing the idea of ecological debt. We had really strong negotiators from the G77, strong delegations from the Philippines, and what we’ve seen since Copenhagen is a really concerted effort to pressure governments in the global South to weaken their negotiating decisions and using aid as a tool to silence it.
My hope was that one of the impacts of Pope Francis' encyclical would be that it would strengthen the hand of governments in the global South to bring back some of those intentions that seemed to have backed off. I’m not seeing that yet.
To me, the most important part of the Paris summit is a convergence, a moment for social movements. I think that Paris should be seen as a giant megaphone, a platform for social movements to get out of their boxes and come together to put forward a coherent vision for an economy that tackles inequality, austerity and the ecological crisis at the same time.
There has to be a commitment not to go along with the momentum, to present a totally inadequate deal as a victory, because I think there is always that momentum at these events, where everybody comes under a huge amount of pressure to act as if they’ve had an influence, and this is something that funders need to take responsibility for as well.
Funders want to fund success. That is the message that groups get and that creates a false and dangerous incentive for NGOs to claim victory when we do not have victory. We don’t have time for that right now. We have to be honest. If this deal has a huge gap between what scientists are telling us that we need to do to keep the temperature below 2 degrees, we all know 2 degrees isn’t safe, and the latest research underlines that. We are headed towards 3.5 degrees with the commitment we have right now. Funders need to send a very clear message to the groups that they fund, that they do not want a failure packed as a victory, just so that groups can come back and tell foundations that they had an influence. A failure packed as a victory would be a disaster.
At the beginning of July you were invited to the Vatican for a two-day conference on Pope Francis’ “green” encyclical Laudato Sì, where the Pope launched a strong critique of the uncontrolled consumerism and irresponsible development that are damaging the environment. Is the encyclical having the impact you expected?
It is too early to tell. I think there are different spheres of impact and influence. Despite having read various speeches of Pope Francis on climate change and inequality, and from Cardinal Turkson who had been very much involved in the encyclical process, I was still quite amazed by the document itself, by the depth and the willingness to really get at the heart of the climate crisis in a moral way. It is a more radical and transformative document than anything that has come out of many green NGOs and environmental groups. I think its most lasting and greatest impact is that it’s going to push the climate movement to go further and dig deeper, because a lot of the groups have played a little bit too safe. One of the things I learned when I was in Rome, and writing about the encyclical afterwards, is that this document has been heavily influenced by social movements in the global South. There’s been a series of meetings in the year leading up to the encyclical publication with coalitions of social movements, like, for example, the workers’ movement in Argentina, and this is why the encyclical has such a strong synthesis in terms of criticising an economic system that produces inequality, and also the ecological crisis. I think there has already been a huge influence on the social movements, in terms of encouragement. What I heard when I was in Rome from Latin American social movement representatives is that at a time when social movements are finding themselves in conflict with left-wing governments who they thought were their friends, it is enormously significant and empowering to feel that they have the Pope on their side, and they are going to make the most of it, on the encyclical.
However, I do not see it having a similar impact in Europe, for instance, and I hope that this will change. One of the great frustrations of the times we are in is that there’s still a huge amount of compartmentalisation around issues. You have a vigorous anti-austerity movement that almost never talks about climate change, and it’s amazing that the whole Greek crisis could be unfolding and we almost never see the connection made between the brutal austerity policies and the fact that Greece is being pushed to drill for oil and gas in the Ionian and Aegean seas, and the fact that Italy is doing the same, and so are other southern European countries.
This should be a moment of deep convergence between all of the social movements, and this is happening in Latin America. In North America and Europe, the model of social change separates the economy from the environment, and that is at the heart of the problem.
What role can foundations play in changing this model?
From what I’ve seen in North America, a lot of this compartmentalisation is a direct reflection of the political agendas of the foundations, who expressly want to fund issues and campaigns they can easily measure, and they are often reticent to fund the cultural work that is needed for change to take place.
Foundations need to take some responsibilities for this tendency to compartmentalise issues and movements. This is holding us back, because a lot of groups got the message that they needed to just be focused on campaigning on their specific issues, and do not have to work on ideas and on shifting values.
I believe what is very remarkable in the encyclical is that it aims to change values.
Economics are the tool, but the goal is to change hearts and minds. We are not going to get the kind of political change we need unless there is an accompanied cultural and value shift, and today we cannot be ashamed of talking about values.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s announcement last year to divest from fossil fuels sparked a great debate on climate change and responsible investment in the philanthropic world. Others have followed but, especially in continental Europe, many foundations still struggle to understand the importance of the divestment movement. Why is there still such reticence?
I think that various foundations are telling themselves different stories about why their work is so important, that it is legitimate for them to do whatever it takes to raise the money. That is the argument I hear most often. But I believe that would change if there was a clear sense of how divestment creates a political context for the policy changes that we want and need.
The most important thing we are doing with divestment is not bankrupting the fossil fuels companies, but making a moral argument about those profits. If it is immoral to destroy the planet, it is immoral to profit from it, but I would also add that it is moral for the public to have a much larger share of those profits to pay for the transition away from fossil fuels, to clean up the mess, which was the argument that was made about the tobacco companies. Once you have established that their entire business model is immoral, that creates a legal and policy framework for dramatically raising taxes on those goods. What we need to do a lot better in the divestment movement is clearly mapping the trajectory. The plan is to go from divestment to national and international policies that capture a much larger percentage of the profits from fossil fuels to pay for the transition off the fossil fuels. I think that if that was clearer, it might be something that the foundation world could get behind more.
This is not just about your portfolio. This is about legitimising profits, and as institutions that have a mandate to act in a way that is in the public good, it is natural for the foundations world to be leaders in tackling climate change.
Divestment is the tool to get to these national and international policies. We’re not going to win this through divestment alone. If you think about the anti-apartheid struggle, divestment was a tool, and sometimes there is more comfort in these actions coming from the private sphere and not engaging with national policies. But we need to do both. We need to do all of it.
This interview was originally published on Effect - The European Foundation Centre Magazine
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