Divest Devon – climate emergency protest. “We are the last to have a shot at this”

Divest Devon protest, Exeter County Hall. All photos by the author

“It’s crazy that our banks and pensions are investing in fossil fuels, when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future that we are saving for.” 

Sir David Attenborough

Campaigners from across the South West set up camp on the lawn outside Devon County Hall in Exeter for four days to demand that Devon County Council (DCC) divest its Pension Fund from fossil fuels within the next 12 months.

A silent ‘performance’ on the steps of County Hall brought spectators and protestors to tears as masked figures, symbolising the world’s oil company giants, poured oil over two young women who then sank to the ground and lay outstretched, as if dead.

A great sadness pervaded the silence as wreaths were laid at the ‘grave’ of the upcoming generation, so richly represented in the crowd. That sadness was mixed with despair and anger as people reflected on the inaction from this government and others to tackle the biggest crisis faced by humanity…ever.

We are the last to have a shot at this…” These words should ring in our ears.

And from these four young women from Dartmoor:

The Divest Devon camp involved campaigners and activists from Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future youth strike movement and marked the beginning of an escalating series of actions aimed at DCC which still has pension fund investments of over £150 million in fossil fuel companies including Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil; this despite declaring a climate emergency over two years ago.

Sally from Crediton, who is involved in the Divest Devon campaign, said

 “We want to urge DCC to get off this road to climate and ecological collapse. There is a route to a better future for us all and divestment is a critical part.

DCC’s main response to date is that we need to engage with the fossil fuel companies, but we know that this approach is deeply flawed. These companies have spent decades suppressing the science and funding lobbyists to spread misinformation and denial. Expansion is at the very core of their business model. We need to take money away from them, not give them our council tax.”

The action comes after a series of unprecedented floods, storms and wildfires wreaked havoc across the globe this summer and the latest UN climate report which has been described as “code red for humanity”.

In May, an International Energy Agency report concluded that there could be no new oil, gas or coal development if the world was to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Recent research goes further, suggesting that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves owned today by countries and companies must remain in the ground if the climate crisis is to be ended.

Hannah Thomas from Crediton, who has a pension with DCC said

 “I accrued my pension with DCC teaching Science and Technology in Secondary schools where the students all learned about the dangers of continued fossil fuel use and unsustainable industries. I am very unhappy that my investment is being used to shore up fossil fuels. It seems hypocritical for DCC to declare a Climate and Ecological emergency and then use science teachers’ wages to pay for it to continue.”

As a former manager of pension fund assets, I can confirm that the most effective way to change investment managers’ behaviour is to change the yardstick by which their performance is measured – the benchmark. If that benchmark excludes non-compliant companies, the risk for the manager of holding any such investments increases. It would be good to see all or at least the vast bulk of institutional assets moved to follow a benchmark which encapsulates a strategy for the future survival of the planet rather than continuing to invest in the agents of its destruction. Only when the polluters’ and emitters’ behaviour changes do they deserve to become investable again.

 The campaigners are asking people to visit the Fossil Free Devon webpage where there is a petition and template letter for writing to councillors – https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/