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Indigenous women lead in divestment

Katharina Wecker
April 26, 2018

First Nations women have met with European banks to push for fossil fuel divestment as the United Nations releases a model for banks to account for climate change. Grassroots action is helping the movement gain momentum.

Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation Europa Credit Suisse Bank
The Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation take action for fossil fuel divestment in front of the Credit Suisse and UBS headquarters in the Zurich financial districtImage: WECAN International/Boethius

"We face the Kinder Morgan pipeline not in our backyard, but in our kitchen. We were once able to harvest more than 90 percent of our diet from our land and waters — but we haven't been able to harvest any food since 1972." 

Charlene Aleck from the indigenous Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Canada has traveled to Germany and Switzerland to tell bank managers how a big oil project they are financing is destroying her home.

Since 1953, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline has traced over 1,150 km (710 miles) of Canadian land, from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia, carrying 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day straight through the homeland of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.

Kinder Morgan is proposing to build a new pipeline alongside this existing one, in order to triple the amount of crude oil being transported. The project was initially approved by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, but ongoing protests and lawsuits have temporarily put a hold on the construction.

Aleck and four other indigenous women from North America who are all affected by big oil projects were in Frankfurt, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland, to meet face-to-face with managers from Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and UBS.

"I came here to let [the banks] know that the risk is too great for our nation — we want to let them know that the company they are investing in does not have our consent, and we oppose them in any legal way possible," Aleck told DW.

Work on the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada
The planned second Trans Mountain pipeline would further damage the already degraded land of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Aleck saysImage: picture alliance/AP/The Canadian Press

The meetings were organized by the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) with the goal to hold banks accountable for their investments.

"Women are standing up for their own territories but also for the climate, for the water, for the forest, for the land. It’s important to understand that women who protect their land also protect the climate," Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of WECAN, told DW.

In light of climate change, fossil fuels must be kept in the ground, she says. "And this is why we are asking banks to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy."

Read more: 

The financial system killing environmental activists

To combat climate change, increase women's participation

Growing movement

The indigenous women are part of a growing fossil fuel divestment movement. Over the last years, more than 700 public institutions worldwide have already committed to divest, including educational institutions, philanthropic foundations and governments. 

A year ago, the German city of Göttingen has become the fourth German city that withdrew investment in coal, oil and gas companies. Earlier this year, New York City's pension fund announced it would pull round $5 billion (€4 billion) of its investments in fossil fuel companies.

Norway's trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund — the world's biggest — also proposed to drop oil and gas companies from its holdings, saying it already has enough exposure to the industry and wants to protect against fluctuating oil prices. The Norwegian government is set to decide in fall of 2018 about the divestment.

350.org Divestment protest
The divestment movement has spread around the worldImage: 350.org

Also a number of Catholic institutions have been the latest addition to the trend. The humanitarian aid organization Caritas Internationalis, owned by the Catholic church, and three German Catholic banks announced in mid-April they would withdraw investments worth $7.5 billion out of big oil.

The Catholic banks are following the example of the Church of England, which divested from fossil fuel companies with the highest concentration of carbon companies after Pope Francis voiced in 2015 his concerns about climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

Big money, big responsibility

Banks and other financial institutions play a major role in limiting global warming by shifting investments from fossil fuels toward renewable energies and other low-carbon endeavors.

However, the fast-paced nature of the financial sector, with its quick and high turnarounds, is not exactly an environment that encourages divestment from fossil fuels.

Will funding for coal soon run out?

To this end, the United Nations Environment Program has developed, together with several climate scientists and financial experts, a methodology to help banks understand how climate change and climate action could impact their business.

UNEP Director Erik Solheim believes that the new methodology will help the finance industry change their perspective. He traces the environmental challenges of today back to "short-termism."

"Financial markets can become a catalyst for action on sustainability, but for that they need to become more long-term oriented," he said in a statement presenting the methodology.

The framework "encourages organizations to consider and disclose long-term impacts," he added.

The methodology allows banks and financial institutions to "see" into the future, predicting how the Paris Agreement, if implemented as planned, will change our economies. For example, investment in coal companies today won't make much sense when coal power plants are eventually shut down.

Carbon Budget data vizualization

If, on the other hand, governments push the renewable energy market to meet emissions-reduction goals, investments in wind and solar parks promise a higher return.

Elmar Kriegler, senior scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research who was part of the team that developed the methodology, says that after computing for investment risks and opportunities in a 2-degree world, it's up to the banks to make use of this.

"Big money also means big responsibilities," Kriegler said in a statement.

Sixteen banks from four continents — including Barclays, National Australia Bank and the Royal Bank of Canada — are currently testing and fine-tuning the methodology.

The indigenous women are hopeful that guidelines like these along with their continued pressure will get banks to eventually divest from big oil.