Underfunded public schools aren't the only reason Bill Gates may be feeling the heat from his Seattle neighbors this week. On Wednesday, former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, along with a coalition of 24 local activists and organizations, launched a campaign to pressure the Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.
In March, a Guardian investigation of the anti-poverty charity's tax filings found that the foundation had invested $1.4 billion in major fossil fuel companies—companies that, as many commentators have noted, have long fought political action on climate change. Climate change disproportionately impacts the poor and makes it even more difficult to end poverty, a point the Guardian itself highlighted when it famously shifted its coverage of climate change into a campaign to get both the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels.
Gates rejected the call to divest, though in June he announced that he'd be investing $2 billion in renewable technology. But now local activists plan to ramp up the divestment pressure.
"Bill Gates has previously responded to the Guardian campaign by saying he doesn't think divestment will be appropriate," McGinn said. "But we're hopeful that when the people of Seattle join in that request the foundation will give it a second look."
McGinn enlisted the help of Sarra Tekola, one of the main organizers behind the effort to get the University of Washington to divest from coal. "Right now we're asking for a meeting," Tekola said. "So we're giving them time to have a meeting with us before we escalate. And in the meantime, just so they don't forget about us, we'll be flyering outside of the Gates Foundation every single day."
The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has attempted to distance itself from its financial holdings. "The assets of the foundation are independently managed by a separate entity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust," Gates Foundation spokesperson Chris Williams wrote in response to my e-mailed questions about the divestment campaign. "The Trust does not comment on its holdings or investment decisions."
The local divestment movement is rejecting that response. Bill and Melinda Gates, they point out, are trustees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust.
"It is quoted on their website that when instructing their investment managers, Bill and Melinda also consider the foundation's values," Alec Connon, a Gates Divest organizer, said. "Bill and Melinda do instruct their investment managers, so the aim of our campaign is to get them to instruct their investment managers to divest from fossil fuels, because investments in fossil fuels are not aligned with the values of the Foundation."
Here's how the Gates Foundation describes the trust's investment policy on its website:
Bill and Melinda do guide the managers of the foundation's endowment in voting proxies consistent with the principles of good governance and good management. When instructing the investment managers, Bill and Melinda also consider other issues beyond corporate profits, including the values that drive the foundation's work. They have defined areas in which the endowment will not invest, such as companies whose profit model is centrally tied to corporate activity that they find egregious. This is why the endowment does not invest in tobacco stocks.
In March, the Guardian showed that the Gates Foundation had invested more than $372.4 million in BP, which is still paying billions of dollars in restitution to governments, businesses, and individuals for the impact of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
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