Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid campaigner and – who knew? – climate activist

Climate Justice

Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid campaigner and – who knew? – climate activist

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In his later years South Africa’s human rights crusader wielded his power and experience to promote fossil fuel divestment.

In late December, the world lost 90-year-old human rights, justice and anti-apartheid champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu to cancer.

Tutu, who was leader of the South African Council of Churches before he became Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, was perhaps most known for his incredible role in the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gathering testimony from the thousands of surviving victims of the ruthless apartheid regime that killed millions of black South Africans between 1818 and 2016.

“We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet. We must stop climate change. And we can if we use the tactics that worked in South Africa against the worst carbon emitters.”

Few know that beginning in 2014, Desmond Tutu stepped outside of race and justice issues to become a vocal advocate for climate change action. When the fossil fuel divestment movement was in its infancy, Tutu wrote a powerful opinion piece for the Guardian entitled “We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet. We must stop climate change. And we can if we use the tactics that worked in South Africa against the worst carbon emitters.” 

Always ahead of his time, Tutu was raising awareness early about the alarming scientific evidence showing large-scale warming, the possibility of the U.S. supporting the proposed Keystone Pipeline and the need for urgent climate action saying, “… We have 15 years to take the necessary steps. The horse may not have bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door.”

Based on what Tutu believed was a critical step in ending apartheid, he made a strong case for global boycotts, as well as divestment and sanctions against the coal, oil and gas industry to ramp up global pressure for change. His call initially was for churches, universities, pension funds and concerned individuals to pressure those they invest in to move out of fossil fuels and, if they wouldn’t, to divest and shift to those who would. 

 “We fought apartheid, now climate change is our global enemy.”

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

Like those who launched the fossil fuel divestment campaign such as 350.org, grassroots Go Fossil Free groups and the philanthropic foundation collective Divest-Invest, Tutu believed moving money out of polluting companies was a moral imperative. “It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future,” he wrote. “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.” 

Tutu’s words, with a second opinion piece later in 2014 entitled “We fought apartheid, now climate change is our global enemy,” resonated globally. As a powerful speaker, anti-racism champion and highly ranked member of the Anglican church, he brought credibility not only to the tactic of divestment but to making climate change a global priority.

Little did Tutu know how quickly fossil fuel divestment would gain momentum and morph from being a morally-based campaign to becoming a global financial phenomenon.  Months after Tutu’s Guardian Op-Ed, Stanford University announced it would divest its $18.7 endowment from coal.  

Similar to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, Tutu helped inspire a new generation of climate-driven student divestment campaigns globally, including at Harvard, Yale, Oxford and the Australian National University. Pressure continues to grow for full or partial endowment divestment action with thousands of universities and churches leading the effort. 

In 2015, Tutu was quietly influential in moving climate change from the obscurity of the middle of a long long list of U.N. sustainability goals to perhaps its highest priority. That year, Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy on climate change and the former Irish President stated, “It is almost a due diligence requirement to consider ending investment in dirty energy companies.” 

Perhaps most importantly, in 2015, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, the $1 trillion Norwegian Sovereign Fund, announced it would divest from coal, followed in 2019 by a commitment to move out of oil and gas. 

These announcements shook the financial world and raised new investor concerns that once valuable fossil fuel resources could become a financial liability now known as stranded asset risk.

Other investors including Europe’s biggest pension fund ABP, New York pension funds, Canada’s second-largest pension manager Caisse de Depot et Placement du Québec and CapPERS began demanding fossil fuel phase-out and divestment commitments.

“Environmental destruction is the human rights challenge of our time and without action, there will be no tomorrow.”

Today, more than 1,500 institutions from 71 countries representing just under $40 trillion in assets worldwide have committed to a divesting from fossil fuels according to 350.org and Stand.Earth who are tracking the movement. 

Far from a short-lived focus for Tutu, in 2020, he met with former Vice President and climate change advocate Al Gore in Cape Town to discuss fossil fuel divestment. That same year, his foundation asked Ugandan climate justice campaigner Vaness Nakate –– a young woman erased from a Davos meeting photo, to give a lecture in his name alongside U.N. climate advocate Christiana Figueres. 

That same year, speaking at the 10th annual Desmond Tutu international peace lecture, Tutu said, “Environmental destruction is the human rights challenge of our time and without action, there will be no tomorrow.” 

In his final days, Tutu continued to speak out on climate change, including expressing concerns that adapting to climate change could lead to a global, apartheid-like divide worldwide between developed and developing nations. His climate change insights and strong challenges to global leaders to act on the issue remain one of his most important humanitarian legacies.

Photo: Kristen Opalinski

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.