By Áine Kelly-Costello
In 2013, I was just another uni student. I was staying at halls, looking for the odd interesting event
to mosey along to with friends to distract me from my upcoming English essays and Music Theory
One evening, just such an event that most of my dinner dinner table were heading to
was a talk by some dude called Bill McKibben, who was, according to them, a great speaker and
well-known in the climate movement. That was literally all I knew about Bill when I decided I’d join
them. Being curious to educate myself on the big issues of our time like climate change, and glad
in equal measure for an excuse to procrastinate for a couple hours, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
As I settled down to listen with my Hall buddies, little did I know that Bill would impart knowledge
that would stay with me and eventually transform my life.
Bill turned the most essential problem of climate change into simple Maths. The gist was that the
fossil fuel industry’s current business model, premised on the need to put profit before all else,
would continue digging for fossil fuels when they’d already uncovered five times the amount the
planet can afford for us to burn. He explained that we needed to move away from fossil fuels
towards renewables quickly and fairly—but that the fossil fuel industry were ignoring that call.
Therefore, it was—and still is—up to us, as everyday citizens, to campaign to erode the social
licence of the fossil fuel industry, till their legitimacy is so precarious that they have no other choice
but to listen. He even suggested how we could do that: we could campaign for our universities,
churches, banks, pension/savings funds, cities and more to stop investing in the industry.
This fossil free movement that Bill was talking about was still in its infancy in 2013. As I walked
back to my dorms, I asked my mates whether there was a divestment campaign at Auckland Uni.
They hadn’t heard of one. Neither had google. It would not have even occurred to me to try and
start a campaign; never having been involved in activism in my life I wouldn’t have had the slightest
idea what I was doing. I settled for looking up the organisation, called 350.org, that Bill had
cofounded. I “liked" the 350 Aotearoa and 350.org Facebook pages, made a mental note to keep
an eye out for a divestment campaign on Campus, and left it at that.
In late 2014 as I was mindlessly scrolling down my newsfeed, a post from 350 Aotearoa appeared.
It was a call for anyone who wanted to get involved in an Auckland Uni divestment campaign. We
were to email 350 to express our interest. Mental alarm bells went off immediately and with some
trepidation, I pressed send on my email, hoping that there would be a role I could help with. As a
blind person, it’s a familiar feeling to be informed, well-meaningly, that “thank you very much but
we have it all covered’. I really didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines this time
Fortunately, if rather dauntingly, I received precisely the opposite reception from 350. Far from
having it all covered, a divestment campaign at Uni did not yet exist, and I would go along to the
very first meeting of interested people.
Things acquired a momentum of their own from there. Thanks to the encouragement from an
exchange student who was instrumental in convincing Glasgow University to divest, I took a lead in
founding Fossil Free UoA, the student movement for divestment on campus, along with a Staff for
I don’t tell you this out of some desire for recognition or praise. Rather, I want you to understand
that as someone who had never participated in a campaign in my life, nor had a family history of
doing so, there is no way I would have voluntarily put so much time into the divestment movement
without having heard what Bill McKibben had to say that evening back in in 2013.
It is because of the work of Bill and a great many others at 350.org that tens of thousands of
citizens, and particularly large numbers of university students, have mobilised to challenge and
erode the social licence of the fossil fuels industry’s corrosive business model.
A total of 852 institutions around the world have now divested, including several churches, cities
and universities here in New Zealand, but its not only about the wins. It’s also about the masses of
individuals starting to understand what climate justice could look like. We look forward into a world
where we halt coal, oil and gas exploration and projects and make a fast and jus transition to
renewable energy. We want those people and peoples most affected by climate change to have
the space to lead conversations on what living sustainably, in harmony with nature, looks like,
because by and large, they are the ones who have least contributed to the severity of the
devastation they re forced to move on from. We want there to be conversations with workers in the
fossil fuel industry to create pathways into working in renewables and elsewhere, because the
transition isn’t just until it includes those whose livelihoods depend on the jobs which have to
change. Perhaps most of all, we hold on to the hope found in movements, like divestment, where
people from virtually all walks of life come together, get organised, and persuasively, peacefully
and persistently stand up for the move away from fossil fuels that the planet relies on.
Divestment is just one component of a much larger picture. Last time Bill was here in 2013, the
story he told us centred on divestment. That was because of the pivotal role this tactic can play in
both building the climate movement, and getting the CEO of oil giant Shell to call "the fact that
societal acceptance of the energy system as we have it is just disappearing' the “biggest
challenge" the company currently faces.
Divestment is in fact working so well that the Fossil Free movement is now able to put energy into
other aspects of that transition. Happily, Bill McKibben will very shortly be returning to our shores
to tell us all about it. If Bill’s presentation style last time was one thing, it was
accessible—accessible to a non-campaigner who had no particular intension of getting more than
slightly better-educated on what we could do about climate change, and who was just happy to be
getting a break from university assignments.
Now, having recently graduated from University and joined 350 Auckland, Bill couldn’t have come
back at a better time for my city’s 350 movement. Before I joined, 350 Auckland successfully
campaigned for Auckland Council to divest, and we’re in the middle of working out how best we
can now contribute to the fast and just transition away from fossil fuels to renewables we want to
see. For my part, I’m so glad to say it’s a movement I’ve played my own small role in and I can’t
wait for the next instalment.
Whether you’re merely mildly curious, like I was in 2013, or fully sold, come listen to Bill to find out
how you can be a part of the change.
Book for Wellington: Sunday 6 May 7pm, Embassy Cinema
Book for Auckland: Monday 7 May 7pm, Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber
Livestreams on Monday 7 May 7pm: Ōtaki , Christchurch, Nelson, and Dunedin
8th May, Whanganui
Áine campaigns for both climate and disability justice. She has recently completed university studies in Music, English, Spanish and French.