Departing editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, stated last month that as part of the publication’s new dedication to climate activism, they would begin aggressively targeting universities, trusts and businesses who commit the cardinal sin of investing in fossil fuels.
Specifically, Rusbridger said they would:
“look at who is getting the subsidies and who is doing the lobbying. We will name the worst polluters and find out who still funds them. We will urge enlightened trusts, investment specialists, universities, pension funds and businesses to take their money away from the companies posing the biggest risk to us.”
The Wellcome Trust is one of the world’s biggest charitable funds and also one of the Guardian’s primary targets for bullying into submission over fossil fuel divestment.
Will it succeed? Possibly. The Guardian has decided to become the face of the divestment movement. The harassment and intimidatory tactics of divestment groups already had some noticeable successes. The Universities of Bedfordshire and Glasgow have both committed to complete divestment. The University of Edinburgh will reportedly be considering following their lead later this month. And beyond academia, last year the British Meddling Medical Association also committed to divestment (I don’t think they needed any bullying, however).
The Guardian has given the Wellcome Trust a deadline of five years and has already started publishing aggressive articles, such as this one, bordering on smearing the Trust for not investing an acceptable (to the Guardian) amount of money in climate related causes.
The Trust’s director, Jeremy Farrar magnanimously penned a lengthy and considered response to the Guardian’s demands. Alas, it was not sufficient to satiate the hungry beast. The Guardian demanded further answers which the Trust has declined to answer and the outrage is now palpable.
I don’t think the Guardian is in any position to make such demands or is even remotely justified in asking many of these questions from an assumed moral high ground. As such I thought I would proffer some responses to the paper’s ‘10 questions’ myself:
Farrar said the Wellcome Trust says it is an unusually “transparent” investor.
Question: What is the total value of the Wellcome Trust’s fossil fuel holdings? Can Wellcome name all the fossil fuel companies it is invested in?”
This is a bit rich from the Guardian as it does not even know itself how deeply invested it is in fossil fuel companies.
It is also apposite here to remind readers of the Guardian Media Group’s tax avoidance.
Farrar said the Wellcome Trust practices “active engagement with the companies in which we invest”. He added: “We would not be able to have the frank discussions we require if we published details, but we are confident that our engagement has impact.”
Question: A number of people, including the philanthropist Valerie Rockefeller Wayne (ExxonMobil) and British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt (BP, Shell), have stated recently that engagement does not work. Without giving specific details, can Wellcome outline any examples of successful engagement on climate issues, such as changes of company policy?”
Perhaps the Guardian should look to its own record on engagement. Alternative points of view in the ironically named “Comment is Free” sections are routinely deleted and their authors banned. I know this very well as I’ve lost dozens of perfectly reasonable and polite comments down the memory hole.
Similarly, above the line, the publication certainly has no difficulty whatsoever in smearing and even libeling public figures who disagree.
Whilst as an active rabble-rouser participant in the divestment movement it can claim some success in having bullied a handful of institutions into submission as mentioned above, it has yet to convince the largest and most important audience: The general public.
So much for successful engagement.
“3. Selling investments if companies refuse to engage
Farrar said: “We consider individual companies on their merits, including the extent to which they meet their environmental responsibilities, when we decide whether or not to invest or stay invested.” He added: “But when we are not satisfied that a company is engaging with our concerns, we are perfectly prepared to sell.”
Question: Can you give any examples of companies that Wellcome has sold after the company failed to respond to engagement? There cannot be any harm in being transparent about this if Wellcome is no longer invested in the company.”
This is wonderfully surreal. The author of this very 10-point interrogation piece wrote only a few weeks ago about the Wellcome Trust doing exactly this. He then writes about it again in point four, below.
In any case it is going to be a struggle to push the Wellcome Trust on this point with most other fossil fuel investments given that so many of these companies are actually heavily invested in green technology.
Question: Does the Guardian ‘meet its environmental responsibilities’? What is its carbon footprint and carbon intensity? Your new coffee shop business looks like it burns enough watts to murder a few polar bear families every month.
The Guardian revealed that The Wellcome Trust recently sold a £94m investment in ExxonMobil.
Question: Was this investment sold because of failed engagement and/or a failure of ExxonMobil to meet its environmental responsibilities?”
Over the years ExxonMobil has been singled out, smeared and attacked more than all of the other major fossil fuel companies put together. This was likely an easy decision for the Trust to make. It could maintain profitable investments in other fossil fuel companies whilst throwing a bone to the Guardian and the divestment lobby in the hopes of some good PR. Unfortunately they have just found out the hard way about ‘giving an inch and taking a mile’. The divestment activists, like so many other leftist causes based on bullying can never be satisfied.
“5. Climate-responsible fossil fuel companies
Farrar said: “We do not agree that the strongest contribution the trust can make to a decarbonised economy is a commitment to avoid investing in a list of 200 fossil-fuel companies, compiled according to the size of their reserves rather than the position they take on climate issues.”
Question: Can Wellcome give any examples from those 200 of companies with responsible positions on climate issues, given that all are committed to finding and exploiting more fossil fuels, when we already have several times more than can be safely burned?”
Question: Can the Guardian use Google?
“6. Fossil fuel company support for carbon pricing
Farrar said: “Some fossil fuel companies – though by no means all of them – are playing important roles in this transition … Some champion carbon pricing, and already use carbon prices internally in assessing investment projects.”
Question: BP champions carbon pricing, but also funds US climate denier senator Jim Inhofe. Shell uses internal carbon prices, but also funds the US climate denier lobby group Alec. Why are companies that fund climate deniers suitable investments for Wellcome, which requires environmental responsibility?”
These are awesomely pointless questions.
The funding in question is not to promote specific viewpoints (as it might be for say, funding a think tank). It is part and parcel of the usual electioneering and lobbying where companies fund both sides of the aisle.
The Guardian is also asking for an impossible level of purity here. We, as consumers and investors, give our custom to a wide range of companies. I think a vanishingly small number of people would find that they approve of every single purchase made, or practice of, even one of these companies. Hell, I don’t even approve of every purchase made by my partner but I’m still willing to sleep in the same bed as her.
“7. Tar sands
Farrar said: “We have had no [direct coal for energy] investments for many years. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund pledged to reduce its investments in coal and tar sands to less than 1% of its portfolio. Again, [Wellcome’s] investments meet this benchmark.”
Question: This benchmark would allow up to £180m invested in tar sands, the continued exploration of which is considered by scientists to be incompatible with a stable climate. How much does Wellcome have invested in tar sands and in which companies?”
There is simply no pleasing you, is there? The Trust has clearly indicated a willingness to reduce its investments in more risky fossil fuel extraction and yet you demand more. Complete withdrawal simply may not be an option and lucrative oil industries will exist for as long as there is demand.
Question: How many Guardian employees now lead an oil-free life? (Total withdrawal from oil dependency is required, right?)
“8. Clean energy investment
Farrar said: “We also invest in alternative energy technologies, from novel and sustainable biofuels to nuclear fusion.”
Question: How much is invested in these sectors and how does that compare to investments in fossil fuels?”
I know I’m repeating myself, but Google can really help you here. Most companies, research groups and innovators are more than happy to reveal their donors if they are engaged with the above technologies. This is because they know they and their backers or customers are not going to be bullied by the likes of the Guardian. Here’s just one example of a Wellcome backed sustainable energy company.
“9. Reputational damage
Section 2.1.4 of the Wellcome Trust’s investment policy states: “It will not invest in structures or assets which create … significant adverse operational, reputational or legal liability.”
Question: Do investments in fossil fuel companies, for example those funding climate change deniers or extracting tar sands, damage Wellcome’s reputation?”
Reputation? The above “damaging associations” are mostly only seen as such by Guardianistas. I think even if they agreed with the Guardian characterisation of “deniers” most people’s sense of fair play would actually incline them towards some kind of minimal financial support for “deniers”. Especially when they find out that many of these “deniers” are actually scientists, academics and researchers themselves. Intuitively, I think many would see the value in ensuring the alternative viewpoint is put forward and heard, however popular the mainstream view is. Indeed there are countless examples throughout the history of science to support this wisdom.
And whilst tar sands extraction may be more intensive and dangerous than many other fossil fuel extraction methods, there is nothing inherently bad about it and therefore nothing immediately damaging by association either. As Professor Paul Younger put it, in response to the University of Glasgow’s divestment, fossil fuels he says are “not some unmitigated evil from which no conceivable benefit to society has been derived.”
As to the point that more intensive processes used to extract tar sands mean they should cause reputational damage, this is just ludicrous. The carbon intensity of various renewables options also varies widely. Should this cause “reputational damage” too? Just look at the profile for wind power, for example.
If anything, I would be more worried about my reputation if I associated with the Guardian. It does after all have a history of screwing over sources.
“10. The “carbon bubble”
“Section 5.12 of the Wellcome Trust’s investment policy states: “Scenario tests are used to examine the potential impact of extreme market conditions.”
Question: Has the Wellcome Trust tested its investments against a scenario in which rapid cuts to global carbon emissions are made in order to keep warming below the internationally agreed limit of 2C? This scenario has been dubbed the “carbon bubble” and warnings about the large risk posed have been given by the World Bank, the Bank of England and economist Lord Nicholas Stern.”
This question is insane.
There is no sign – none – that most of the world has any intention of rapid cuts to carbon emissions, regardless of individual nations like the UK (responsible for a measly 1.24% of global carbon emissions) committing economic and energy supply suicide in order to appease the fear of CO2.
This is the kind of scenario that any major company may consider of course as a contingency but given the current status quo they would be perfectly rational not to waste resources on planning for it.
OK then, Guardian. You have 48 hours to answer these points. Otherwise I’ll throw my toys out of the pram, stamp my feet and whine “it’s not fair!”
Just like you.