East Sussex County Council: a climate crime scene

Four ‘police officers’ help to declare County Hall a climate crime scene, 7 December 2021. Photo: Emily Mott

On Tuesday 7 December, scores of people from across East Sussex, Brighton and Hove gathered at the East Sussex County Council offices in Lewes where the last full council meeting of the year was taking place. Watched by security guards and the police they peacefully encircled County Hall with 400m of ‘climate crime scene’ tape, beat a drum, blew whistles and created a blast of noise, declaring the meeting a climate crime scene.

This follows the demonstration on the 12 October when more than 150 campaigners from across East Sussex staged a major climate protest outside County Hall in Lewes, demanding that East Sussex County Council (ESCC) finally start treating the climate emergency as an emergency. At the front of their list of demands was for ESCC to commit to stop investing local people’s pensions in the giant fossil fuel companies, like Shell and BP, that are driving the climate crisis.

Since February, when Sussex Bylines published Fran Witt’s article on the Divest East Sussex campaign, the urgent need for such action has become even more apparent.

Massive fires in Australia, Europe and the US, and extraordinary floods all over the planet, including in the UK, have caused homelessness, suffering and death on an epic scale. The world has finally come to accept that such events are the result of global warming resulting from human actions: first and foremost the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal).

A local pension fund member helps to encircle County Hall with climate crime scene tape, 7 December 2021. 
Photo: Katie Vandyck

Moreover, with the International Energy Agency warning that there should be no new investments in fossil fuels, and the UN Secretary-General stating that the latest UN climate report ‘must sound a death knell for … fossil fuels‘, there is no longer any excuse for oil companies to continue flooding the world with fossil fuels or to continue opening up new oil and gas fields (as companies like Shell and BP are currently planning to do).

Public bodies have a duty to show leadership on this issue by taking their investments out of these fossil fuel companies. Yet as Fran wrote back in February: “Pension funds are among the UK’s biggest investors with massive holdings in fossil fuel companies. But pension beneficiaries – most employees – are probably unaware how their savings are being invested, allowing investment companies to put profit before societal and planetary well-being.”

ESCC is providing a fig leaf for oil company attempts to block climate action

ESCC administers the local government pension scheme covering East Sussex, Brighton and Hove: the East Sussex Pension Fund. Yet, despite ESCC declaring a climate emergency in October 2019, the Fund is still refusing to stop investing in fossil fuels.

Despite years of ‘engagement’ not a single major oil company is yet on track to align itself with a 2ºC pathway by 2050, let alone a 1.5ºC one now.

Moreover, since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the five largest publicly traded oil companies (Shell, BP, Chevron, Exxon and Total) have spent over $1bn on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying: efforts.

By clinging on to its remaining investments in fossil fuel companies (which may soon amount to no more than 0.5% of the Fund) ESCC is effectively providing a fig leaf for these companies’ ongoing attempts to block effective climate action – and missing a huge opportunity to show real leadership on the climate crisis.

Demonstrating outside East Sussex County Council’s Lewes HQ. Left to right: Councillors James MacCleary (Lib Dem, ESCC), Imogen Makepeace (Green, Lewes District), Milly Manley (Green, Lewes District), Sabina Arthur (Labour, Hastings Borough) and Siriol Hugh-Jones (Green, Brighton & Hove City) help declare County Hall a climate crime scene, 7 December 2021. 
Photo credit: Emily Mott

On 12 July the matter was once again put to a vote in the five-person East Sussex Pension Committee, the Fund’s ultimate decision-making body. As on past occasions, the two non-Conservative councillors on the committee voted to divest but were blocked by the three Tories.

Two days later, Conservative councillor Sam Adeniji – who had only been placed on the committee in May – found himself removed by his fellow Tories.

Just days earlier, on 9 July, he had met with climate campaigners from his division to discuss the case for divestment. He didn’t sound 100 per cent convinced by the Fund’s arguments for continuing to invest in fossil fuels, and told them that he was willing to meet with the two committee members (Councillors Hilton and Tutt) who support divestment. That, it seems, was enough to seal his fate.

Bexhill co-opts ‘David Attenborough’ to support divestment call

David Attenborough has noted: “It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel, when these are the very things that are jeopardising the future that we are saving for.”

And support for divestment continues to build, with campaigners staging a mass ‘Attenborough-in’ (with giant David Attenborough puppet) outside County Hall in July, and Bexhill Town Council (BTC) voting in favour of divestment at its meeting in August.

BTC has now joined Hastings Borough Council, Lewes Town Council, Lewes District Council, Brighton & Hove City Council, UNISON and MPs Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion, Green) and Maria Caulfield (Lewes, Cons) in publicly backing the campaign.

By making a public commitment to divest, ESCC would send a powerful signal to policymakers about the need to finally get serious about tackling the climate emergency (which will require the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels from the world’s energy system).

Some 1,500 institutions around the world – collectively managing over $39 trillion – have already made some form of divestment , including six UK pension funds.

It’s time for the East Sussex Pension Fund to join them.

Three ways to support the campaign

  • Send a postcard to each of the three Conservative councillors on the East Sussex Pension Committee, urging them to stop investing in fossil fuels. We’re reliably informed that Cllr Hollidge (who replaced Sam Adeniji in July – see above) has already received scores of cards! Full details here: https://tinyurl.com/divestmentpostcards
  • If you’re a Pension Fund member then sign our members’ petition calling for the Fund to divest from fossil fuels: https://tinyurl.com/members4divestment.
  • If you live or work in Brighton or Hove then sign the petition calling for the Pension Committee to be expanded to include councillors from Brighton & Hove City Council (BHCC): https://tinyurl.com/listentobhcc. BHCC has repeatedly called for the Fund to stop investing in fossil fuels but currently has no representation on the Pension Committee, despite BHCC and its employees paying almost a third (31.9% per cent) of the annual contributions to the Fund.
Campaigners declare East Sussex County Council’s meeting a climate crime scene, 7 December 2021. Photo credit: Emily Mott

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