Dozens of activists and former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn paddled in kayaks to Bill Gates’ house on Lake Washington Saturday. There message was simple: The Gates Foundation should divest from fossil fuels.
This came after Bill Gates’ gave his first public response about divestment in an interview with the Atlantic this month, in which he called it a “false solution.” Kayactivists hope they can convince the Gates to re-assess his position on divestment before the upcoming Paris talks on Climate Change.
But in a stark contrast with the confrontational #sHellno protests against Shell Oil, kayactivists chanted slogans aimed to encourage, not antagonize. They asked the Gates to live up to the moral expectation of his foundation by divesting publicly.
In an optimistic step, kayactivists humorously brought along an extra kayak for Bill and Melinda Gates, inviting the couple to “join” them for the Saturday’s events.
But on the shore outside the Gates’ mansion all was quiet during the kayaction, save for a group of kids who briefly showed up to snap pictures of the kayaks.
“We are looking at Bill and Melinda as leaders to stand up and renounce their profits and help initiate a move away from the current model of fossil fuel economy,” said Alec Connon, who helped tow the empty kayak behind his own.
Connon said they hoped bringing attention to this issue will cause Bill and Melinda to carefully reconsider their views and actions on fossil fuel divestment.
“There are a great many people all over the world now who believe fossil fuel divestment is an essential part of the solution,” he said. “UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the World Bank Chief Jim Yong Kim have spoken out in favor of divestment.”
I asked Sarra Tekola, another of the local leaders involved in Gates Foundation Fossil Fuel Divestment, if these protests were too hard on the Foundation given all the work it does in reducing child and maternal mortality in Ethiopia (and elsewhere).
“While Gates might have good intentions, his thinking [on divestment] is wrong, and we are hoping we can persuade him by showing him a better path and asking him to stand on the right side of history,” Tekola said. “Right now he’s siding with Exxon. In fact, Exxon was like ‘oh, divestment is a false solution; Look, Bill Gates said it.’”
Gates is probably resistant to divesting from fossil fuels and other morally objectionable corporations for the simple reason that those investments generate a lot of profits, keeping the Foundation’s $41.3 billion endowment healthy and funding billions of dollars in payments to its grantees each year.
When the Globalist pressed the Foundation on private prison investments in the past, they essentially responded to that effect — that a completely separate body called the Gates Foundation Trust makes the investment decisions, and that their goal is to maximize the amount of money the Foundation has in its coffers. They also argued that a $2.2 million dollar private prison investment paled in comparison with the billions they’d spent doing good work around the world.
That’s a little less convincing when it comes to fossil fuel divestment. In March the Guardian called Gates out for having $1.4 billion invested in fossil fuels (based on their 2013 tax filing).
Recent tax records hint the their investment in fossil fuel has now actually decreased to $420 million. It was reported at the beginning of the year that the Foundation sold off 8.1 million Exxon Mobile shares valued at $765.9 million. It’s unclear whether this was part of some unannounced move toward divestment, or just the Trust playing the market.
While the foundation’s investing arm says it doesn’t invest in companies that engage in for-profit “egregious” corporate activity, the list includes BP and Shell as well as Brazil’s Petrobras and other notoriously bad corporate citizens.
Seattle’s kayactivists and many the 235,000 others who’ve signed on to the Guardian’s “Keep it in the Ground” petition want Gates to completely and publicly divest from fossil fuel.
“We went to his house today to put up the pressure because he has been ignoring us and then he came out and said it was a ‘false solution.’ But it’s not a false solution,” Tekola said, explaining the urgency behind Saturday’s action
She gave divestment from Apartheid South Africa and big tobacco as examples where similar campaigns succeeded in changing the paradigm.
“A lot of people see him as a moral leader and when Gates invests in fossil fuel even if it’s a little bit, it still shows he supports these industries. If he was to divest, it will be a powerful statement that would go across the world,” Tekola said. “We see that his heart is in the right place and maybe he cares about climate change. But he needs to show us now and publicly divest.”
“The statement that Bill Gates made about divestment was a little bit unfortunate and a bit misleading,” said Alex Lenferna, a Ph.D. candidate at the UW studying Ethics of Climate Change, and one of the leaders of the divestment group. “The way he characterized it, made it seem as if divestment is not important”
Lenferna hopes the Gates Foundation morally aligns itself with its values by divesting from fossil fuel and eliminating the ‘inconsistency’, if not hypocrisy.
As of now, Gates Divest, the grassroots group leading the campaign, is awaiting a response to a meeting request with Foundation representatives.
They will probably have to wait at least one more day if they want to meet with Bill himself — today is his 60th birthday. The birthday message Melinda posted for him on Facebook did raise suspicions that the Gateses may be dabbling in kayaktivism themselves: