My dear friends at the University of Cape Town,
Climate change has become a profound and growing human rights issue, a threat to all of us, and to the world’s poorest, who are least responsible for it, most of all.
In May, I visited Alberta, Canada, where I saw how the relentless exploitation of tar sands is stripping away the rights of First Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned. Together with nine other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, I have called on President Obama to block the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, planned to carry oil from the tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico across the United States. Earlier this year, I called for all people and institutions of conscience to commit to divestment from fossil fuel companies.
Climate change is a particular injustice for Africans, because it is the world’s most vulnerable people who are already paying for developed countries’ failure to act with their lives and livelihoods. Our continent is home to many already carrying the burden of droughts, floods and increased disease that may have been worsened by the collective carbon emissions of humanity.
There are many ways that all of us can fight against climate change: by not wasting energy, for instance. But these individual measures will not make a big enough difference in the available time. It is clear that those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money. They need a whole lot of gentle persuasion from the likes of us. And it need not necessarily involve trading in our cars and buying bicycles!
During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, using boycotts, divestment and sanctions, and supported by our friends overseas, we were not only able to apply economic pressure on the unjust state, but also serious moral pressure.
The University of Cape Town is perhaps the leading university on the African continent. It is a centre of excellence for climate change research, and is home to many leading voices on human rights and social justice. It makes no sense for the university or any other institution to invest in companies that undermine our collective future. It makes little sense for any South African institution to make new investments in mining coal – or fracking – in the name of economic development. We know these are the most short-sighted kinds of development. Their benefits will not last and their costs are immense – almost certain future danger and destruction for our most vulnerable people.
It is the world’s wealthiest countries and people who have benefited most from the use of fossil fuels, and have contributed most to global warming. It is time we took full responsibility for our past actions. People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. I ask UCT to examine urgently the extent of your investments in fossil fuel companies and to make a strong commitment to phasing them out as soon as possible.
Desmond Tutu, 18 July 2014