The Non-profit Sector Needs To Do To Fossil Fuels What It Did To Tobacco and Alcohol

On November 30th, politicians from around the world will meet in Paris to decide on the actions needed to combat climate change.

More than 190 countries will be represented at the conference with a legally binding climate treaty being the desired end goal.

The United Nations 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21 as it has come to be known, is not only the most important event of this year, but it is perhaps the most important event of this generation.

It is universally accepted that a global temperature rise of two degrees would prove to be catastrophic to life on this planet as we know it. As has been the case with most years recently, this current year is the warmest ever recorded and for the first time average temperatures have climbed, and remained, more than one degree above pre-industrial levels.

It seems that we are now past the halfway stage on a road that leads only to disaster.

Where the previous 20 UN conferences have failed, COP21 seeks to succeed, but whether the politicians and diplomats can set aside their differences and come to an agreement or not, climate change is an issue where we all have a role to play.

To believe that governments hold the key to solving the problem of climate change is naive, and to believe that there is no problem to solve is deluded. It is a global problem which we are all affected by and which we all contribute to. For that reason, the power, and the responsibility, lies with us just as much as it lies with our leaders.

Whatever comes out of the conference in Paris, we as activists, campaigners, and global citizens, need to act. What has gone before has not been enough, and though global emissions were said to have stalled in 2014, more needs to be done.

This belief that we are not doing enough extends even to the sector in which I work. Though non-profits and charities work tirelessly to improve this world, there are certain actions, which if taken as an industry, could be just as, if not more beneficial, than the work done on the ground.

Climate change disproportionately affects developing and poverty-stricken nations more than it does the richer, industrialised world. In December 2014, IBT ran an article which highlighted the results of a report conducted by Standard & Poor. It showed the “five countries that the S&P report says are most vulnerable to climate change.” These countries were Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Mozambique.

All five of these countries appear in the lowest third of the 2013 Human Development Index, and aside from Vietnam, they also all appear in the UN’s 2014 list of Least Developed Countries.

Back in 2009, the World Bank listed the five greatest threats arising from climate change – droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels, and greater uncertainty in agriculture – before listing the 12 countries that were at the highest risk of each of these. Low income countries occupy four of the top five positions and 16 of the top 20. In all, 68% of the countries listed fall under the World Bank’s low income classification. Incidentally, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Mozambique all feature.

Climate Change Countries

With this being the case, no matter how hard charities and international organisations work to improve the lives of the people in these countries, it all amounts to nothing if the issue of climate change is not dealt with.

Combating climate change is the responsibility of the international community and the organisations that seek to improve lives across borders. There can be no international nor truly sustainable development unless climate change is halted and reversed.

It is for that reason that I believe all international development organisations should make a commitment to not only divest from fossil fuels in their investments and pension schemes, but also to refuse any money from the fossil fuel industry in donations or grants towards their work.

Though each charity has their own governance structures and policy documents, a fundamental principle of all charities is that they cannot harm those that they intend to help. With climate change being the greatest threat to humanity at present, particularly those living in the developing world, working with industries that have created and perpetuated the deteriorating climate is not only unjustifiable, but it is a betrayal to those who are in need of our help.

The Institute of Fundraising has a document entitled “Donation Acceptance and Refusal Policies and Processes Guidance” and by reading its contents it becomes clear that the fossil fuel industry is not compatible with the work of international development charities.

A particularly pertinent section states: “There may be some donors whose activities are clearly detrimental to the organisation’s beneficiaries and to accept a donation might assist in giving respectability to the donor and help promote the continuance of those detrimental activities.”

The activities which are “clearly detrimental to the organisations beneficiaries” have already been highlighted by the fact that climate change disproportionately damages countries that are already struggling to provide a good standard of life for their populace. The second half of the sentence: “to accept a donation might assist in giving respectability to the donor and help promote the continuance of those detrimental activities” refers to the practice of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is whitewashing, but in an environmental context. Greenwashing Index states that it is “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.” The example given on their site is of “an energy company that runs an advertising campaign touting a “green” technology they’re working on — but that “green” technology represents only a sliver of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business”.

By painting a picture of the company as ethical and environmentally friendly customers falsely believe that their business practices are not harmful and so are more inclined to use their products or services. Greenpeace run a website entitled which carries the banner: “clean up your act, not your image” and features Shell heavily.

Essentially, greenwashing is a PR stunt for unethical businesses to improve their image. And one of the easiest ways of doing this is by conducting charitable work or by creating a Foundation for giving – Shell Foundation, Vitol Foundation, BP Foundation etc. By allocating a minuscule portion of their revenues, these unethical businesses then claim to help communities around the world by funding or establishing projects in developing countries.

The fact that Shell, Vitol, and BP are hugely responsible for climate change, and thus the tremendous negative effects that come with it, is hidden beneath a layer of corporate social responsibility which promotes the seemingly positive and ethical nature of the business. If charities decide to work alongside such businesses they are aiding in the greenwashing process and betraying those beneficiaries they were established to help.

Arguing that all international development charities cut ties with the fossil fuel industry is a bold statement to make, but such actions are not unprecedented in the non-profit sector.

The tobacco industry has a long history of attempting to whitewash its devastating effects by donating money to charities, but health charities are now wise to such tactics and refuse to accept their money. Cancer Research UK, Worldwide Cancer Research, and Marie Curie are just some names from a long list of those who refuse donations from the tobacco industry.

Similarly, many charities also oppose donations from the alcohol industry due to the damage alcohol causes many of the people the charity has been established to help. Tommy’s, a charity focused on healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, “will not accept financial donations of any size from an alcohol manufacturer because of the direct link between the use of alcohol and problems in pregnancy”. Likewise, Alcohol Research UK “will not accept funds, in cash or in kind, from the alcohol industry.”

As is the case with tobacco-alcohol and health charities, money from fossil fuel industries, and those polluting and damaging the environment, must be refused by charities dealing with international development. It is unjustifiable to accept money from the very people that are causing the problems you are attempting to overcome.

On its own, such action will do little to combat climate change, but it will send out a powerful message to the fossil fuel industry. A message that says they can no longer greenwash their activities and nor can they use charities to alleviate a small fraction of the tremendous damage that they are causing this planet and its people.

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of my employer Renewable World.

Further Reading

This handy “cookbook” produced by the people over at Corporate Europe Observatory. Echoes my thoughts on distancing ourselves from all fossil fuel involvement and money.
“But it has happened before. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) realised it was never going to be able to tackle tobacco use effectively when having to deal with industrial lobbying that was incompatible with public health interests. So it introduced a firewall between public health officials and the tobacco industry, officially called Article 5.3 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (UNFCTC).”

Benny Dembitzer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in terms of international development and aid. His extensive career spanning many decades has taken him across the globe. His publication The Attack on World Poverty is ruthless and sobering.
In this publication he says the following: “NGOs are not the solution to the underlying challenges of underdevelopment, but they have an important capacity to think and act in independent ways that no other player has… There are several issues and approaches on which agreement must be found within the NGO community and which in turn they must foist on the governments of the countries from which they emerge and of those in which they work. In my view one of the problems of voluntary organisations is that they have been too timid and not demonstrated their willingness to lead”.
He continues: ” There is a more fundamental issue that needs to be explored concerning voluntary agencies emanating from the North; they have been too willing to follow the path dictated to them by the government of the countries in which they emerge. They need to carve a different path if they wish to attack world poverty. That means extricating themselves from the blandishments of the Establishment, because the very Establishment is part of a continuum of activities and policies that encompasses the World Bank and the WTO, bodies that at their very heart do not help the poorest, but fundamentally damage them because they are powerful tool to tackle the wrong illnesses. If the international community can change direction – and to my mind it is essential that it should – it is the voluntary organisations that have to show the way.”


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