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The Valentine’s day ‘Thunberg-in’ outside County Hall, February 2020 – the last group protest before Covid-19. Photo: Steve Lewis.

Divest East Sussex!

Gabriel Carlyle looks back over the last seven years of campaigning to get East Sussex County Council to divest from fossil fuels.

Since 2013 hundreds of people from across the County have been campaigning for East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to publicly ditch its investments in the giant fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP. Now seems like a good time to reflect on the story so far, what’s been achieved, and what needs to happen next.

Keep it in the Ground Lewes ran a poster campaign with graphic design students in Ringmer.

‘It was a big revelation’

The campaign began in 2013 when Ann Link invited Duncan Clark, co-author of The Burning Question, to talk to Transition Town Lewes. Clark spelled out the simple arithmetic of stopping catastrophic climate change: to have even a 50:50 chance of keeping global warming to 2°C, at least 75% of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) needs to be left unused.

The packed meeting led to the creation of a new group: Keep It In the Ground Lewes. ‘It was a big revelation,’ Link told me. ‘It’s the inexorable rise in emissions, and the inability to deal with the sources of emissions, that is making everything so bad. Everything we did subsequently followed from that.’

‘In the same light as tobacco’

A sympathetic Councillor discovered that roughly 7% of the East Sussex Pension Fund – the local government pension scheme administered by ESCC – was invested in fossil fuels, and a petition was created, calling on ESCC to divest (i.e. to sell their investments in these companies and commit to not investing in them in the future). Hundreds of signatures were collected before the baton was passed to the newly-formed Fossil Free Hastings (FFH) at the start of 2016.

Even by 2013 a global campaign to get institutions to divest from fossil fuels was well under way. The idea was simple. As FFH co-founder Julia Hilton explained: ‘fossil fuel companies need to be cast in the same light as tobacco companies have been in the past, shamed for their role in hiding the impact of climate change and tarnished, so that they have less influence over governments and decision making.’

Touring around different towns in the South East in a bus fuelled by waste cooking oil to gather signatures for a divestment petition was a great example of an activity in which the medium supported the message (Photograph: John Enefer)

A harder nut to crack

A climate tug-of-war action in Hastings town centre paved the way for a unanimous vote in favour of divestment by Hastings Borough Council. The focus then shifted to the County Council, which was clearly going to be a much harder nut to crack.

Mother Earth battles The Fossil Fool in Hastings Town Centre, February 2016.

Handing in 25 metres of petition signatures at County Hall in February 2017.

A County-wide group, Divest East Sussex (DES), coalesced as the campaign gathered the 5,000 signatures necessary to force a debate at the County Council level – a process that required tens of thousands of conversations and took the best part of three years – and other institutions were brought on board (Lewes Town Council, Brighton & Hove City Council, Lewes District Council).

‘A wonderful moment’

A ‘war of questions’ was started at ESCC’s meetings. This involved early morning trips to County Hall by people from across the County, raising questions about divestment. More often than not they received cursory or dismissive responses. Nonetheless the campaign’s relentless presence made it clear that neither the campaign nor the issues were going away.

‘Seeing my daughter at only 16-years-old standing up in the Council Chamber and asking the Council and the Pensions Committee of mainly over-60s men if they thought they had a responsibility to her generation to stop investing in fossil fuels was a wonderful moment,’ Fran Witt told me.

Over 100 members of the public attended the divestment debate when it finally took place in October 2019. As anticipated, the Councillors voted overwhelmingly against divestment – before voting, separately, to declare a ‘climate emergency’. If you think this sounds too ridiculous to be true, read more by reading this HOT article.

The East Sussex Pension Committee suspended its meeting after suffragettes delivered a ‘Deeds Not Words’ climate change ultimatum to them in November 2019.

Suffragettes and Santas

Since then the campaign has continued, launching a nonviolent direct action phase, holding actions costumed variously as suffragettes and santas, and staging a mass ‘Thunberg-in’ outside County Hall.

No presents for ESCC! Santas and elves bring a Christmas divestment message to County Hall in December 2019.

Nor has the coronavirus pandemic halted activities. Hundreds of members of the public submitted over 500 written questions about divestment to the Council’s meetings this year – eventually forcing the Council to concede that its official policy of ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies (which it continues to pursue) has been a dismal failure.

In August the campaign set a world record – ‘Most people to attend a Zoom protest wearing a chicken mask’ – with an action entitled ‘Cllr Fox: Don’t let your fossil fuel chickens come home to roost!’ (Cllr Fox is the chair of the East Sussex Pension Committee).

Some positive movement…

There are signs that ESCC has begun to shift: in June the Pension Committee finally announced that it was taking action to halve its exposure to fossil fuels – while continuing to reject calls for full divestment.

Lessons learned

The campaign has also learned a thing or two along the way. First, as Julia told me, that we urgently ‘need more people who have a serious commitment to tackling the climate emergency in positions of power like the council’. Indeed, her experience of addressing the Pension Committee in 2018 and 2019 made her realise that ‘no one had ever really challenged them before about their beliefs or assumptions on the influence of the fossil fuel companies’.

Second, that you don’t win by giving up. ‘We can bring about change if we stick at it,’ Fran told me, but to do so we also ‘need dogged determination and lots of enthusiastic local people’.

Hastings locals give fossil fuels a jazz band funeral in May 2017.

Third, that winning anything that’s more than purely symbolic is often difficult. As HOT’s Erica Smith – who has played many roles in the campaign, including designing the DES logo – told me: ‘Divestment is a relatively simple step to take to show a genuine intention to stop climate change. I find it amazing that East Sussex County Council have not taken the campaign more seriously.’

Fourth, that winning change requires focus. If demands are too diffuse then no institution or decision maker feels enough heat to force them to change.

And fifth, that we need all hands on deck. Esme Needham – who took part in the very first Fossil Free Hastings action aged 11, and is currently building a touring diorama for the campaign – told me that one of the things she’s most enjoyed about the campaign has been ‘the sense of actually getting to be involved. As a young person I’ve sometimes felt excluded from activism organised by adults… With this one it feels like there’s something for everyone to do… [and] I’ve learned that activism can actually be a lot of fun.’

A crucial year for the climate

2021 will be a crucial year for the climate, as the world slowly emerges from COVID-19 and the world leaders meet in Glasgow for the most important climate summit since Paris. In this critical year we need ESCC to show real leadership with a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels, not just the slow sidling towards the exit that we’re seeing now.

With enough pressure from local people, we might just be able to do it.

Want to get involved? Contact the campaign on 07596 483 272 or email divesteastsussex@gmail.com. You can keep in touch with the campaign via the Divest East Sussex website, and also follow Divest East Sussex on Facebook  and Twitter.

This article has been written for the HOT Bursary scheme. In lieu of payment, a donation will be made to climate campaigner Suzanne Dhaliwal to aid her work supporting individuals impacted by racism in the environmental movement.

Hastings craftivist Lynne Salvage delivered these beautiful hand-embroidered divestment ties to the five members of the East Sussex Pension Committee in November 2019.

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Posted 16:51 Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020 In: Campaigns

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