The citizen-led movement that divested Berlin

By Sarah Scott, Mona Freundt and Simon Schöning, Fossil Free Berlin

This article is published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now for more on the topic

On Valentine’s Day 2015, a group of climate-conscious Berliners launched a campaign to openly pressure Germany’s public institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry — the greatest driving force of the worldwide climate crisis. Inspired by 350.org’s international call to action, Fossil Free Berlin joined campaigns spanning the world, from Ukraine to the United States; Nepal to Japan.

The seeds of Berlin’s divestment campaign had been sown prior to February. We started as a small local group of citizen activists concerned with how much of the city’s money, particularly the pension fund, was invested in assets of the fossil fuel industry. Berlin’s state pension funds, a substantial municipal asset, are typically partially invested in the stock market. Over the next several months, we led a concerted effort to bring the idea of divestment into Berlin’s public discourse, using a combination of direct actions, political lobbying, petitions, and national and local press coverage. More members joined and citizens voiced their support, resulting in the idea of Berlin participating in the global fight against climate change by becoming the divestment capital.

Following the outcome of the Paris Climate Accord, the world saw the adoption of the first holistic climate agreement, which is based on an increase in global efforts over the coming years to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees. Civil society’s role is to ensure pledges are kept and increased, as well as getting engaged and demanding new innovative ways to accelerate climate action. With the term divestment being rooted in civil society movements, we continued in our efforts to inform about the importance of withdrawing often opaquely invested public resources from the fossil fuel sector. Because we are not a group of financial experts, we didn’t fully understand the complexities of our undertaking until well into our campaign. Withdrawing 823 million euros of Berlin’s pension fund from oil, coal, and gas was a journey fraught with financial technicalities, dismissal or deflection by those in positions of power, and the usual day-to-day happenings of any climate activist campaign.

Following the Berlin state elections, a change in the city’s government created additional barriers, with a new coalition and no more predictability about the commitment to climate change related issues among the new government. Even when there seemed to be little progress and the topic of divestment dropped from the list of main priorities, we continued to pressure and lobby the city government. Having just become familiar with the political power play of local government, members of the group used their newly-gained knowledge and growing influence to mediate between different parties in an effort to broker a deal for the divestment of the city’s pension fund.

Finally, after campaigning for almost one and a half years, on June 23, 2016, Fossil Free members met with Berlin’s Finance Senator during the final stage of parliamentary decision on the issue of divestment. Successful in securing the Senator’s support, the campaign resulted in the announcement of a public tender for building an alternative index, which excludes fossil fuels, in addition to nuclear energy and weapons of war. As of April, 2017, a new index for investment free of fossil energy has been made available, paving the way for more public funds in Germany to be divested in the future.

The success story of Fossil Free Berlin’s divestment campaign is in many ways a story of people taking action and not accepting ‘it’s impossible’ for an answer. Within a challenging political environment, our work was characterised by a constant struggle of bringing attention to a complex topic that is not prioritised or even really understood by the government. Additionally, for most of our members this was their first time engaging in political activism at all. With this reflection on the success story of Fossil Free Berlin, we hope to demonstrate that ordinary citizens’ actions can indeed make a difference of significant proportions. And it is exactly the people taking initiative that society needs, maybe now more than ever.

With the German government likely to fail meeting its 2020 climate targets of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, and the recent change in the coalition government as a result of the German Federal election, it is understandable to feel trapped in despair. However, despair is not what drove ordinary Berliners to convince their city to divest from the fossil fuel industry. It was hope that sustained us and the conviction that, when people of all ages and backgrounds come together and rally around a common cause, in this case the fight against climate change, it is possible to embark on the path to a sustainable future for all people.

Divestment is in fact not just about sustainability and it’s not just about financial assets. It is a global movement for the transition to an energy system based on renewable sources. It is a movement for withdrawing the fossil fuel industry’s legitimacy to make profit on the back of the environment and people. And it is a movement of justice: justice for local citizens who disagree with their government’s support for fossil energy and justice for people who are already affected by climate change around the world today. And fundamentally, justice for all future generations, who, at some point, will inherit the energy system and the environment that this generation is leaving behind for them. The divestment movement offers people agency in the struggle for climate justice — a struggle that can be taken up by anyone, anywhere, anytime — but best today!