Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at age 95, leaves two legacies for climate hawks — the necessity of persistence and the value of divestment.
Who among us can even imagine the persistence required of a man who spent more than 27 years in jail — from 1962 to 1990 — in his quest to end Apartheid? But his indefatigable spirit triumphed, and he was elected the first black president of South Africa a little more than 4 years after his release. His forbearance and moral sensibility prevented what many saw as an inevitable civil war and achieved, instead, national reconciliation.
Desmond Tutu wrote in a 2010 WWF editorial:
“Last month we saw celebrations marking 20 years since the release of Nelson Mandela. That historic day signaled a turning point in the path this country was to take; we embarked on a new journey filled with hope for the future. Indeed, there were many who had to pinch themselves when it happened, so bleak were the preceding months and years during which many South Africans saw their country in crisis.
The global movement urging action on climate change should take heart from that great event…. It took individual and collective activism and a sense of urgency and responsibility to change our nation. Twenty years later that’s what it will take to change the world.”
Climate hawks have already begun to take a page out of the strategy that helped bring down apartheid. Bill McKibben discussed that very point in a 2012 National Journal profile:
McKibben now plans to pressure U.S. institutions, starting with universities, to end their financial investments in oil, gas, and coal companies. He’ll launch a 20-college tour, joined by Nobel laureate and South African human-rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to pressure university boards, via student protests, to end university endowment’s holdings in fossil fuels.
“Two hundred colleges divested their holdings in companies that did business with South Africa. And when Nelson Mandela got out of prison, the first place he came was not the White House—it was California to thank University of California students who had helped get their system to divest $3 billion in holdings in South Africa,” McKibben said.
“As Desmond Tutu says, this is the next great moral issue that we face, and the same kind of tactic is what’s necessary to face it.”
Economy-wide divestment from fossil fuels is inevitable (see “Invest, Divest: Renewable Investment To Hit $630 Billion A Year In 2030, Fossil Fuel Stocks At Risk Today”). But, as I’ve written, we are poised to miss the window to avert catastrophic climate change by just a decade or two — resulting in possibly hundreds of years of misery for billions and billions of people.
That’s why climate hawks must redouble our efforts against our redoutable opponents. Indeed, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in 2010 that this was the heartening lesson Mandela’s persistence held for those tackling “the great causes of today” such as climate change: “And so the lesson of the South African struggle is surely that change never comes without a fight, but when we fight, progressives can change the course of history.”
Mandela famously said, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” But he had so many inspirational quotes. In his 1995 book, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he wrote, “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
And, finally, he also wrote this:
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
Emily Atkin assisted with the research on this piece. Photo via iHeartClimateScientists.