Divestment and The Guardian: The right strategy but the wrong target

© 2014 Colin Cafferty

A climate change campaign calling for divestment in London last year


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…so the poem goes. But a certain Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, clearly was stirring, not least emotionally, when he sent an email to twenty or so colleagues at The Guardian newspaper at around 10pm that night. Rusbridger had recently caught ‘climatitis’ at an awards ceremony in Stockholm when having lunch with Bill McKibbin, founder of 350.org. And so now he was convening a task force of The Guardian’s best and brightest to throw their full weight behind an ambitious project to shine a light on climate change by ‘reinventing our storytelling capacity’. Or in the immortal words of George Monbiot the following month, ‘We can’t carry on flogging a load of dead horses and flogging them in exactly the same way with exactly the same whip’.

Indeed this news story is in all likelihood the first time any editor of an internationally renowned newspaper has elevated climate change to the very top of the news agenda and Mr. Rusbridger deserves our respect for this much. After twenty years at the helm, Rusbridger is preparing to step down. He may yet succeed where Obama has fallen, that is to create a legacy in what he rightly describes as ‘The Biggest Story in the World’. The behind-the-scenes look afforded by the podcast series of the same name is refreshing, revealing and may yet be the most original piece of storytelling in the entire media campaign. I can’t help but feel like an incredibly fortunate intern who has blagged a seat around the discussion table in their special projects room; a mouse that dares not stir least he cause a stampede for the door.

The true extent of McKibben’s influence on proceedings is not acknowledged other than to adopt the hashtag #KeepItInTheGround as a maxim for focusing climate change efforts on the fossil fuel industry. Although much debate is given to selecting an angle for the Guardian story, in the end it is not a ‘global political solution’ suggested by Monbiot that is chosen but rather divestment. And it is not a conventional reporting route that Rusbridger settles on but a campaign, despite his obvious trepidation. Since campaigning for large institutional investors to divest from fossil fuel holdings has been the whole raison d’etre of 350.org for some time now, it would not be unreasonable to believe that McKibbin must have sprinkled some of his magic sauce onto the smorgasbord they both enjoyed that time back in Stockholm.

As I listen through the podcast series, I become that intern silently nodding at the table in agreement with the editorial choices Rusbridger is taking. The moral imperative for divesting is certainly a compelling force for change, particularly in the early stages of such a campaign when leadership is required. But with time, those hard-nosed investors who continue to invest in fossil fuels will be forced to react to the economic imperative as they consider the very real danger of a carbon bubble exploding in their face. In a sign that financial markets are taking the risk of stranded assets seriously, HSBC Global Research published a report in April 2015 (Stranded assets: What next?) offering economic advice on managing increasing fossil fuel risk and advocating divestment as one approach to reducing risk exposure. Neil Berkett, chairman of the independently run Guardian Media Group, proves the point when he rather unexpectedly announces in podcast Episode 4 that they have decided to divest themselves. ‘It’s been complicated as our principal accountability is to fund The Guardian in perpetuity’ he explains, ‘but as we began to analyze our portfolio we came to the conclusion that you could generate at least equal returns [without fossil fuel investments]’. And so the first, perhaps only, victory in the Guardian campaign is secured in its own back garden. The Guardian has been cleansed. It now has the moral authority to campaign for others to follow in its wake.

Here is where I part ways with the Rusbridger approach (actually it happens one episode earlier). The Editor-in-Chief goes about selecting the targets of his campaign – The Wellcome Trust, a preeminent biomedical research charity just down the road from The Guardian offices in London and across the Atlantic, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His rationale of ‘targeting the liberals who will do something’ holds promise on the face of it, even if it’s in need of quite a bit more fleshing out. We are told that The Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world with $43.5 billion in their endowment and $1.4 billion invested in forty of the top 200 carbon reserve companies. Another fact, but not disclosed to our ears, is that Gates is also the largest private funder in the field of medical research along with the Wellcome Trust which follows in second place. Perhaps it was discussed in the room and this intern just wasn’t paying attention. But in any case, it’s not being shouted about loud enough now. I find it quite surprising that any Guardian campaign, involving two organizations sharing a fundamental interest in R&D and health, is not relentlessly and unambiguously pursuing an agenda that connects these interests to fossil fuels and climate change. And yet aside from a letter from the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations in the news publication last week (Fossil fuels are the new tobacco when it comes to health risk), there has been very little talk about all this. Perhaps there isn’t much to talk about in the first place.

I’ve decided to take issue with the biggest campaigning prize of the two. I tentatively raise my hand in the special projects room, and then think the better of it. By now, I’m actually sitting on a stool over in the corner. I couldn’t nod any more and I’d given up staring awkwardly at the knots and grain in the sustainably-sourced pine table. Bill Gates has always put his trust in innovation. In fact, it would be harder to think of anyone still alive who symbolizes technological innovation and entrepreneurship more than him. I fire up my laptop and google ‘gates” and ‘energy’, skip past the energy-saving electronic gates in the search results, and arrive at www.gatesnotes.com, the personal blog of the great man. ‘Does he really have time to blog, seriously?’ I think to myself. I’m looking at an article on energy poverty written last year where he provides a platform for Two Videos that Illuminate Energy Poverty by Bjorn Lomborg, previously described as ‘one of The 10 Most-Respected Global Warming Skeptics’. Lomborg believes fossil fuels are the only way to provide electricity to those in sub-Saharan Africa and lift them out of poverty, a view which Gates obviously subscribes to also as he admits, ‘I always find him [Lomborg] worth listening to’. I construct a news headline in my mind for the next day’s Guardian front page; ‘Gates Divests from Fossil Fuels Despite Belief Poverty will Worsen in Sub-Saharan Africa’. Best not to say that out loud.

My curiosity is well and truly piqued by now as I scroll down through the first page search results. TerraPower – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Let’s take a look at the all-seeing, all-knowing Wiki then. ‘One of TerraPower’s primary investors is Bill Gates’, it tells me. A few more clicks and I discover that he’s actually a board member. TerraPower is a nuclear reactor design company based in the US that’s developing a new class of nuclear fast reactors called the traveling wave reactor (TWR). Okay, so Gates is investing in nuclear as a novel form of low carbon ultra-efficient energy source that could be a game changer in the fight against climate change. One way of interpreting this is that he won’t have much reason to invest in fossil fuels if the technology is ever successfully commercialized. But that’s not happening anytime soon. Another voice in my head says that Gates is simply being true to himself, investing in technology, in the zealous belief that it will be the solution to providing the clean energy of the future. So far my search has not offered up any indication that The Gates Foundation has an incentive to divest itself of its billion-dollar fossil fuel portfolio.

Talk in the special projects room at The Guardian has moved on to boring economics stuff led by Larry Elliot, the Economics Editor. ‘It’s hard to see how the Russian government would be affected by a divestment strategy’, he points out. I set myself a new challenge – to employ my extensive googling skills to search for Guardian articles about The Gates Foundation that may have been actually written by some of the people present in the room. I want to know what Rusbridger and his team already know about Gates that they’re not talking about. Zero point two eight seconds and 1,930,000 results later, I’m presented with an article appearing in the papers Environment section that reports on the TerraPower connection back in 2011 (Bill Gates and China in discussions over new nuclear reactor). Feeling ever more confident, I use the search feature on The Guardian website itself, which yields 657,000 results alone. By now, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I should be getting a consultancy fee for this’. Up pops an article by John Vidal, Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering. As a technological proposal, this is as utterly radical as it gets. Gates clearly believes that climate change is a problem that should be solved by technology and The Guardian must already know this.

What does all this tell us? It tells us that Gates is going to advocate for R&D into clean energy, energy storage and the likes over divestment in fossil fuels every time. But why can’t he do both, I hear you say? Invest in technology and divest from fossil fuels? They’re not mutually exclusive after all. Well because of his old pal Warren you see. Tap, tap, tap… ‘He was the most successful investor of the 20th century. Buffett is the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, and consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people’ (Warren Buffett – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Over on The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I learn more from Marc Gunther about the cosy relationship between the two as he tells us, ‘Buffet sits on the board of the Gates Foundation; Gates is a director of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s holding company’ (Climate change: what Warren Buffett could learn from Bill Gates). All perfectly above board. Gates reportedly considers himself ‘very lucky’ to be able to ask the Sage of Omaha, for advice on a regular basis. So if Gates investment strategy is not common knowledge, then should we not consider the investment style of Buffet? After all, this should be transparent to just about every stock investor at trading desks, both real and virtual. What would Warren say to his old pal across the boardroom table…or even the bridge table? By now, I’m free-styling between the Wiki tab and the Guardian tab in my browser, weaving together a story, amazed at my own cleverness. Meanwhile the special projects room has transformed itself into a ‘special therapy room’ as James Randerson declares the ‘need to confess that I find climate change really hard to engage with’. Everyone else is talking psychology at this stage but I’m going way deeper than all that.

Gunther, Editor-at-Large for Guardian Sustainable Business US, goes on to tell us that BNSF Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most aggressive lobbyists for the coal industry in the US. In fact, Buffet’s stake has recently been performing better than expected (Berkshire Hathaway profits bolstered by rail operator BNSF) making it very unlikely that he’ll be cashing out of high carbon investments in the near term. Indeed Berkshire Hathaway is one of the very few big US companies that has not reported on its greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project. A dialogue is now playing out in my mind. ‘So Warren, old buddy, what do you make of this newspaper campaign to divest the Foundation’s fossil fuel holdings?’ ‘Well Billy boy’ begins Buffett in a Mid-West accent, ‘I’m surprised to hear you ask me that question. You know I’ve committed 99% of my $70 billion fortune to philanthropic causes, primarily via The Gates Foundation, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna see you piss it away cause of some hippie bullshit over in England!’

Armed with coloured markers and post it notes, the others in the room are getting all creative in their search for a jargon free positive story. Meanwhile, I’ve come across what at first glance appears to be the most compelling article of all. It’s from 2010 so it didn’t appear at the top of the search page – The Guardian launches global development website with Gates Foundation. If Rusbridger had made his final campaign in office into a developing country issue, then he could have appealed directly to the core objectives of The Gates Foundation. For instance, a campaign that galvanizes inward investment into a technology that assists developing countries in an innovative way, and sits outside of the hideous bureaucracy of the UN process. Something that specifically addresses the twin themes of health and R&D that Gates and his foundation already have an established track record on. Even better, he could have aligned with one of the objectives of the global development website – adaptation to climate change. Perhaps he felt such a campaign would conflict with their existing global development partnership. Or perhaps he realized that he had left it too late into his term of office to achieve something tangible and focused on this theme.

The Guardian isn’t afraid of exposing the financial affairs of Gates, just not at the time of launching a campaign that depends on his goodwill. An article by Ian Birrell that appeared in the ‘Comment is Free’ section of their website last year takes no prisoners as it asks, Bill Gates preaches the aid gospel, but is he just a hypocrite?. I’m now shielding my laptop screen just in case any of the other staffers get a glimpse and violently eject me from the room. “Moving earnings through low corporation tax countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore means the company saved itself, according to one estimate, almost £3bn annually in tax”, he reports. This figure surpasses even the $1.4 billion in fossil fuel investments held by his foundation. It seems that when it comes to business, Gates draws a distinction between ethics in business and ethics in global development. Would The Gates Foundation even exist as a philanthropic entity if for instance, Microsoft was pressured to address its tax avoidance? By now I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there may be other more obvious campaigns targeting Gates, which may not serve climate change, but nonetheless have an equally strong moral imperative.

I apologize for not having mentioned Melinda Gates so far. As co-founder of The Gates Foundation, she could yet swing the decision in favour of divestment. But again, there are no indications, to the best of my considerable googling prowess, that she is any more open to divesting of fossil fuels than her husband. Her Twitter account advocates strongly for gender equality and female empowerment within the context of global development and health (you guessed it, yet another worthwhile campaign). In the short term, The Guardian could see if they can leverage her interest in climate change as a health issue for women, one that could be better served by divesting from fossil fuels. I’m really clutching at straws now.

I find myself questioning whether Gates really has anything more to prove in terms of leadership at a global level. His public perception is generally favourable and his legacy in the business and tech community is already assured. On top of all this, he is making a real difference to global development issues in a way that entire nation states have not been able to achieve. His approach is targeted, results-oriented and hugely ambitious. When it comes to public health in developing countries, there is surely no other private organization in history that has made more of an impact. He recently played a huge part in eradicating polio in India and has his sights set on global eradication by 2018. We are talking positive impacts to millions of lives. Is he really going to be compelled to take on another leadership role, this time in the fight against climate change? If he ever decides, the evidence suggests it’s likely to be through investment in technology or global development than by divesting from fossil fuels.

I admire the consistently high standard of reporting by The Guardian on climate change and I fully support the wider campaign to divest of fossil fuel holdings. If their campaign succeeds, I will be the first one to congratulate them. But I strongly believe that The Guardian has chosen the wrong target in The Gates Foundation. An intern searching the newspaper’s own website could have shown that there’s simply no compelling reason for Gates to support their campaign. Perhaps they didn’t do their research because they knew they never needed to, because Rusbridger is taking a gamble. What’s a billion here and there when your personal fortune is valued at $79 billion (as of April 2015)? It’s a relatively modest risk in order to secure your legacy as a global leader in the Biggest Story in the World. More than one man’s legacy depends upon it.

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