Desmond Tutu: Climate Crisis Demands Boycott of Big Oil

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during a special tribute to honour Nelson Mandela at the Mandela Centre of Memory. South Africa - 09 Dec 2013 (Rex Features via AP Images)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during a special tribute to honour Nelson Mandela at the Mandela Centre of Memory. South Africa - 09 Dec 2013 (Rex Features via AP Images)

This post originally appeared at Common Dreams.

Archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu is saying their is no longer any excuse for not doing everything humanly possible to fight climate change and has called for an international “anti-apartheid-style boycott” against the fossil fuel industry.

In a striking essay and call to action in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, Tutu writes: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

Desmond Tutu on Truth and Reconciliation

As examples, Tutu said people can and should boycott events, sports teams and media outlets sponsored by oil and gas companies. He also touted divestment by municipalities and universities who have broken ties with the industry and called for public health warnings against products associated with the carbon-reliant economy.

“We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry,” said Tutu. “But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess.”

The Guardian’s environment correspondent Damian Carrington reports:

The Archbishop’s intervention, timed ahead of Sunday’s UN report, is the strongest yet in a rapidly growing global campaign against oil, gas and coal companies that is uniting campaigners against global warming with major financial institutions seeking to avoid a trillion-dollar crash in fossil fuel stocks. A leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states investment in fossil fuels must start falling by tens of billions a year to avoid dangerous levels of warming.

The good news, according to Tutu, is that a divestment campaign is already underway, having started 18 months ago in the US. Since then, it has grown even faster than those that targeted apartheid, tobacco and arms manufacturers, according to research from the University of Oxford.

The research showed past divestment campaigns succeeded by stigmatising their targets – which Tutu calls “moral pressure” – as well as exerting financial pressure.

“It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future,” concluded Tutu in his missive to the world. “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”

Jon Queally, is a senior editor and staff writer with Common Dreams covering US politics, foreign policy, human and animal rights, climate change and much in between. You can follow him on Twitter @jonqueally.
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  • Scooby

    Sign me up.

  • Alpha Wolf

    Americans DEMAND 290 billion gallons of oil a year. We are about 4.5% of the world’s population and consume close to 25% of the world’s energy and have been the largest polluters, and greenhouse gas emitters, for the last century and a half.

    Greenpeace reported the other day that if the internet was a country, it would be the 6th largest in the world in terms of energy consumption – between Russia and Germany – and this is set to triple by 2017. My favorite statistic is that Americans use more energy on our air conditioners alone than the entire continent of Africa (with 2 1/2 times as many people) uses on everything.

    China, with over 4 times our population, recently surpassed us in energy consumption, but they also brought 600 million people – twice the U.S. population – out of poverty over the last 30 years and billions more in the developing world want a small fraction of what we have and that doesn’t come without lots of energy. While Americans were the primary drivers of energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century and a half, the nearly 6 billion people in the developing world, who currently consume a small fraction of what we do, will be the primary driver this century.

    While it will give us a psychic high and sense of moral superiority, boycotting select energy companies, or divesting from them, will do absolutely nothing to impact this end demand.

    So the fundamental question is: what precisely are YOU willing to give up to help stop climate change? Your car(s)? Your heat? Your air conditioners? Your internet? All of the things that magically appear in our stores and have fossil fuels imbedded in their production, distribution and consumption?

    How much are YOU willing to spend to shift towards a more energy efficient lifestyle and how much are you willing to have our collective standard of living decline, since it has been built on, and based on, relatively cheap fossil fuels for the last 150 years?

  • Anonymous

    To Alpha Wolf, Yes, I’m aware of the consumerism of Americans, at the same time realizing I have power over my personal decisions and local participation. Here is what I’ve done: I’ve become a vegetarian,(the methane problem, plus the health benefits) I buy local produce(cross country shipping=too much fuel) I grow a small garden of veggies (organic=no petro- chemicals) I use a window fan in the summer and air out my home in the evening, close it during the day.Yes, I have given up my car. It’s a little difficult, but there are rewards. It has taken me time to get this far, and I can do better. (Becoming vegan for example.) Don’t underestimate “the power of a few good people.”

  • JonThomas

    I think you make a great point! It’s good to see people like you leading the charge to lower America’s energy footprint. People need reminders and your comment does that in spades!

    I, for one, gave up my car and started riding a bike over 25 years ago. The only rooms air conditioned in our house is where my octogenarian granddad stays.

    Having an Italian background helps us to have 3 generations living under the same roof, where we all share the same tiny car for necessities. The internet is shared by these same generations, with even granddad using his relatively low-energy-consuming ipad.

    The wood stove in the basement helps us keep our fuel costs low, and we make as many better-for-the-environment choices as possible. What we use in internet, we make up for in other conscientious choices. Are we perfect? No, but we do our best.

    I’m a 25 year vegetarian (one of the most beneficial environmental choices a person can make.) Granddad, had a vascular issue a few years ago and was forced to consider his diet. Having heard me explain and defend my food choices to inquisitive people for years, is now also mostly vegetarian (eating meat, at most, once a week.) Since he started paying attention, news article after news article has confirmed the once fringe nutritional facts I’ve been saying for years. Now the bullheaded in the family are waiting for both of us to fall over from protein deficiency lol. Never mind that granddad is over 85. Now he even leads the house reduce, reuse, and recycling program!

    The point is that yes every choice matters! Will China and other developing nations be like granddad and wait years before they start understanding the issue, the truth, and what’s at stake? Perhaps, but that does not give carte blanche to the consequence-ignoring bullheaded among us!

    Your reminders are a welcome addition to the environmentally conscientious around the world. Perhaps you too feel good that you helped people to be conscious of the footsteps they take through life. Even the most selfish can learn and make adjustments.

    A person must train and follow his conscience. I for one am proud to read Archbishop Tutu’s words on this issue. It gives us hope that the human spirit, irrespective religious and ideological boundaries, can inspire, and be inspired. That spirit can motivate to action those who are humble and open to do good in this world that, like our house, we all share.

  • JonThomas

    Your choices are very similar to my own. It’s always good to see people make life affirming choices!

  • Alpha Wolf

    Thanks Jon for taking my comments in the spirit offered. I was afraid
    I may have come across as a little harsh. While divestiture and other
    actions may be useful, at least on a PR level, unless people are willing to radically change their lifestyles and expectations, taking the
    climate and other impacts of their choices into account, this will not
    shift the overall situation.

    I didn’t want to post links and graphs, because these often get flagged, but energy use, and carbon output have grown exponentially (ie: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16…., instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….) in direct line with our economy for the last few hundred years, and this is the pattern in the developing world with China, with its horrendous pollution problems, leading the way. To your point about vegetarianism, the first thing people tend to do when they move out of subsistence poverty is to increase their protein consumption, with the environmental implications you outline. They then add electricity, cell phones, internet and along up the line. Then, as you reach certain income levels as is happening in China and elsewhere, you add a car and move towards U.S. consumption patterns, although the average Chinese still only consumes 1/4 of the energy as the average American and the average European and Japanese consume about half as much energy as the average American.

    Like you, I too have taken major steps to become conscious of and
    shift my consumption patterns. While individual choices have a minor
    impact on the overall situation, I think this shift in consciousness and
    culture is key because we are ultimately going to have to shift our
    lifestyles and expectations towards a more sustainable path.

    I also respect Bishop Tutu, and while divestiture may make a moral
    statement, I think people also have to put their money (and lifestyles)
    where their mouths are, which is a lot more difficult.

    When Gandhi was asked about his strategy of passive resistance, he
    said, there was nothing passive about his strategy. It is active and

  • JonThomas

    Lol… well, to be perfectly honest, I’m glad you got the chance to expound. Parts of your comment did come off a bit disagreeable and I wasn’t entirely sure where you were going with parts of your comment, but at the did have that emphatic exhortation (admonition? lecture? sermon? criticism? objection? lol… I wasn’t sure.)

    It just seemed the best, and most civil path was to look for the good and play that up as much as possible. Ok… ok I did put a few jabs in there is case you were coming off as self-centered. That way, even if you disagreed, it would have been fun. Besides if you did chaff, it would be entertaining to watch you squirm under my presumptions lol.

    Also, like “Hopei”, I too saw the opportunity to offer a comment on my own ethical path.

    I think your further comment really opened up your point well. Divestiture is a good public statement, and an important public step, but I fully agree with your assessment on the species wide “shift in consciousness” that will be needed in order to truly affect change.

    Again, thx for following through.

  • Anonymous

    I thank both you and JonThomas for sharing. GREAT exchange.
    And – ever since I was a child, I had this idea/vision of making all things — the design & manufacturing process ‘modular’ and able to be pulled apart. And have a law such that EVERYTHING must be essentially recyclable or degradable in a non-toxic way…in a meaningful space of time.
    There MUST BE A RADICAL change in all that we do. Every tenth time I put something in my trash barrel I think of this. I pride myself on some recycling – but I know this is not enough at all.
    On the same note, I love HGTV (especially while exercising at a gym where we are producing energy on ellipticals and treadmills and bicycles – that goes nowhere and often COSTS ENERGY to produce). And yet, in EVERY redo/redesign house and garden shows, there is a huge amount of manufactured products that end in a dump or leech into the water table, and just a small amount of stuff gets recycyled. But it’s just ‘a given’ & not recognized much.

    Where does this go? How can this expanding world population not RUN OUT OF ROOM to put our non-recyclable junk?
    I totally applaud ArchBishop Tutu and his campaign, along with the spirit of your comments.
    Somehow, at several decades old, I still see all this with my ‘child’s eye’ — and, it doesn’t add up! And I know, as ANYONE would WHO IS AWAKE, that the foolishness involved in our way of life is just obscenely wasteful, it’s absurd and destined for MAJOR CHANGE, one way or the other! AND ALTERNATIVES CAN & MUST BE DEVELOPED, implemented and celebrated!

  • Alpha Wolf


    I usually don’t share a lot of personal stuff, but about 5 years ago I was at a retreat where we went on “Shamanic journeys.” I had a “vision” where someone like Google (they’re the logical choice because of their size and ubiquity) would collect environmental, labor and other data on all products (where and how they are produced, how much they contribute to carbon and other pollution, fair labor standards, etc.) and would come up with a simple rating system (backed up by more granular data and analysis), so that when you searched for or scanned them, you would get simple information/ratings about their social and environmental impacts.

    My belief is that most people care about these things, but we’re trained in our culture to be unconscious consumers, with irrelevant, or even destructive, characteristics being endlessly marketed as socially desirable. We go into stores,
    and purchase heavily marketed, deceptively packaged products with little or no consciousness or information about how they were produced. While we may wish it to be otherwise, in general consumers purchase products based on price and perceived quality and marketing and packaging are intended to obscure the factors that went into producing the products we buy. By providing simple, readily available information about products social and environmental impacts, I believe consumers would start shifting their behavior to more conscious, sustainable choices, businesses would respond to this, as they always do to consumer demand, and perhaps more importantly, culture would shift to support these more sustainable values rather than the trivia that most of the culture sees as important.

    I think most people are concerned about what’s going on, and want to contribute to a solution and support change, but most decisions are made unconsciously and they’re not aware of the full impact of their choices or behavior or the alternatives.

    Going back to my original comment, every American alive today was born into a culture and economy that was literally built on fossil fuels for over a century before they were born. Like fish in the water, they don’t even realize that Americans consume 290 billion gallons of oil a year or that 4.5% of the world’s population produces nearly 25% of its carbon emissions and pollution and has been the dominant emitter for the last 150 years. The appropriate analogy might be fish in a cestpool. For example, while China recently surpassed us (with 4 times our population), it will take them 94 years at current levels to surpass Americans’ cumulative carbon emissions.

    As with your idea, we need to shift our consciousness and culture towards making more sustainable choices.

  • JonathanPfeffer

    The reason that we use so much oil has little to do with the oil companies and everything to do with that fact the ordinary people demand it, it is the masses who refuse collectively to cut back. Our world runs on oi, a fact that Mr Tutu seems to have overlooked.
    The solution to the issue of the excessive use of carbon based fuels can only lie in the transformation of the modes of energy from Carbon to nuclear and renewable modes. And that will have to happen in the spirit of cooperation and not confrontation.
    Men like Desmond Tutu and other activist who only understand confrontation are not effective on this issue because the majority doesn’t takes them seriously. This scapegoating of the oil companies does well amongst the environmentalists, but that is preaching to the choir. The effective activists are those who have reasonable solutions and can articulate a way in which all parties come together and solve the problem. The solution involves good laws, reasonable plans and effective policies, and those things need people who can be trusted to bring people together.

  • Anonymous

    I think your vision/idea about a ‘Google’-like thing or some entity (group of students or people or a social enterprise, maybe like Consumer Reports does with its reporting system which I use every time I make a major purchase or Angie’s list, etc.) that would ‘collect environmental, labor and other data on all products (where and how they are produced, how much they contribute to carbon and other pollution, fair labor standards, etc.) and would come up with a simple rating system (backed up by more granular data and analysis), so that when you searched for or scanned them, you would get simple information/ratings about their social and environmental impacts’ — is SUPERB.

    YOU sound very creative. I have a lot of ideas myself about how to attract people of all stripes, and especially the young, to progressive careers and enterprises that point to sustainability & a more sane, fair & even happy way of living. We need action and collaboration! (And thanks to Bill Moyers & Co for the space & inspiration to discover this — over and over.) It (the struggle, as well as the fun of innovation that is needed) is personal, and local, and global. Thanks all around.

  • Anonymous

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  • Brooks Bridges

    Sorry to be so late chiming in. I’ll make just one point: We need to use every tool in the tool box to fight climate change and this is merely one tool, not a silver bullet.

    A huge percentage of Americans are still blissfully unaware of just how dramatically climate change (and other factors, e.g., growing population) are going to affect them and their children. We know the main reason: fossil fuel industry financed disinformation. So, we need every kind of action to end run this campaign to wake up people and this is just one of many. I only hope our “leaders” will eventually step up to the plate.

    Ordinary people do not “demand oil”. They have been largely suckered by the advertising industry paid by our corporations to convince them to buying “bigger, better, newer, etc.” A huge percentage driving gas guzzlers would be very pleased with my Prius if they gave it a try. It’s quiet, roomy, adequate acceleration and twice the US average mpg.

  • Carola Meyer

    Love these comments, and I’ve made similar choices – including moving closer to my work to save on commuting, and avoiding use of heaters in winter by just wearing warmer clothes, as far as possible. But since most of us still do drive fossil-fuelled cars or other vehicles, there’s an easy way all of us can cut those emissions by a third, at no cost – in fact, SAVING substantially on fuel costs. See . It makes sense in every way.