While most of the political establishment fixates on the Washington gridlock conservatives have orchestrated to stymie efforts to switch to green energy and prevent climate change, a little-noticed announcement in New York last month showed one way determined climate activists are working their way around it.
The announcement was that an organization working to encourage disinvestment in fossil fuel companies and investment in clean energy alternatives had won in the past year pledges worth $2.6 trillion to do just that. Among the 400 institutions and 2,000 individuals declaring their commitment to divest from fossil fuels was the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. DiCaprio released a statement highlighting the threat of climate change to global well-being, adding, “After looking into the growing movement to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions, I was convinced to make the pledge on behalf of myself and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.”
The announcement was a triumph for the Wallace Global Fund, a key funder of grassroots organizations driving the switch to green energy, and its co-chairman Scott Wallace. It is a prime example of the work that the Campaign for America’s Future is honoring October 27 at its Awards Gala, where Wallace will receive a Progressive Champion award along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and grassroots network National People’s Action.
In an interview with OurFuture.org, Wallace said that the Divest-Invest effort grew exponentially from where it was just one year ago, when its leaders announced that it had won $50 billion in divestment commitments and “we really stuck our neck out to say we think we can triple that by this time next year.”
The effort’s success in blowing past that goal will have tangible benefits for American workers and consumers. “With the flow of trillions of dollars of private investment money into renewable energy, you are going to see a massive expansion of the solar, wind and biomass sectors. That’s where the jobs are,” he said.
Also, “you can make good money” as an individual by moving your 401(k) or retirement fund to stocks or stock funds that focus on green energy and shun fossil fuels, he said.
The template for this, Wallace said, was the effort in the 1970s and 1980s to encourage disinvestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa. The pressure on colleges and other institutions to pull money away from corporations doing business in South Africa proved to be a key factor in the eventual dismantling of the apartheid government.
“We were really thrilled when Desmond Tutu [the South African archbishop who was a key leader of the anti-apartheid movement] … made the connection between the divestment campaign over apartheid” and the climate change crisis and agreed to do a video for 350.org, a Wallace Global Fund grantee, in which he called for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in clean energy solutions.
Wallace says that what makes momentum like this possible is grassroots political organizing. He cites as an example the work of Bill McKibben, the climate activist who has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and of the use of fossil fuels generally. He was arrested outside the White House in 2011 in a Keystone pipeline protest when the Obama administration refused to oppose the pipeline’s construction. The passion of McKibben and other leaders has helped ignite such events as 2014’s “largest-ever” climate change march in New York City.
“What is says is that it takes a movement,” Wallace said. “A lot of us foundations have been doing climate a long time. It’s not enough to fund the study or the scholarship or a high-level conference or fly people off to the next climate negotiation. The needle gets moved when there a movement, and in this case, it’s not just in the U.S. It’s all over the world.”
Wallace believes this type of movement-building is critical as the United States and the other major global economies prepare for next month’s climate summit in France.
Wallace draws his passion for movement-building from his grandfather, Henry A. Wallace, who served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt and was noted for his declaration in 1942 that the so-called “American Century” should instead be “the century of the common man.” In that same speech, he spoke of a “people’s revolution” linked to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He said America’s post-war goal should not be American supremacy – “we ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis” – but a global “economic peace that is just, charitable and enduring.”
“That’s what we try to carry on here, his tradition of the strengthening the ability of the common man to stand up together and unity for whatever we need,” Wallace said.
Wallace said he sees echoes of his grandfather in the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think Bernie Sanders is channeling Henry A. Wallace. He is a fervent populist, all about the common man,” he said.
Wallace recalled that when his grandfather launched his 1948 presidential campaign, he funded it by charging people 25 cents to hear his speeches and by selling tracts and other goods. “And they had millions of dollars raised from that,” Wallace said.
That approach mirrors what Sanders is doing. “It’s a great way to build a movement and keep the fat cats out” Wallace said. “You don’t need them.”
To purchase tickets for the Campaign/Institute for America’s Future Awards Gala in Washington on October 27 featuring Scott Wallace, go to Gala.OurFuture.org.