15 August 2023

Greta and her fanclub need to get real about the climate challenge


The Edinburgh International Book Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Unfortunately, all has not run entirely smoothly this year.

At the beginning of the month, Greta Thunberg announced she was pulling out of her appearance at an event entitled ‘It’s Not Too Late To Change The World’. Why? Because the festival is being sponsored by venerable, partner-owned investment managers Baillie Gifford, who Thunberg claims ‘invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry’. Their support for the festival was, therefore, little more than ‘green-washing’, just the kind of manipulation the climate prophetess finds unacceptable.

Global warming’s Joan of Arc did not get where she is today without knowing when her troops will fall in behind her. And so it was that last week more than 50 authors and panel chairs, including Zadie Smith, Gary Younge and Ali Smith, wrote to the festival’s organisers in support of Thunberg, demanding that Baillie Gifford either dispose of any investments in fossil fuels or be replaced as sponsors for the 2024 edition. If this does not happen, they warn gravely, they will boycott next year’s event.

Leaving aside the routine tedium of this kind of low-risk virtue-signalling, Thunberg’s judgement on Baillie Gifford is very much a matter of perspective. The investment she describes as ‘heavy’ amounts to about 2% of the company’s assets under management, in an industry where the average investment in fossil fuel producers is 11%. And of the investments that make up that 2%, many are in firms already decreasing their involvement in fossil fuels, while others are actively engaged in developing clean energy.

But Thunberg’s pre-eminence in the global climate movement has not been founded on discussion, debate or the exchange of ideas. Rather, she has relied on the purity of her belief and the inner light of her conscience. That’s entirely her prerogative, of course. She is perfectly entitled to adopt an unimpeachable line which tolerates no engagement with fossil fuels at all.

Those who have clanked into formation behind her take an equally absolutist approach, whereby the merest trace of contact with the messiness of these issues is regarded as beyond the pale. The absurdly Manichean view of this movement was typified by young climate activist Mikaela Halls, who dramatically told festival-goers: ‘You wouldn’t burn books, so why are you burning the planet? Drop Baillie Gifford!’

The irony, undoubtedly lost on the climate zealots, is that Baillie Gifford is a firm with much to recommend it. Setting aside the sheer scale of success, and its non-hierarchical ownership model, the company is actually trying to use its weight and influence in financial services to encourage innovation and decarbonisation through progress, rather than vapid carbon-shaming. One might also observe that it has sponsored the Edinburgh Book Festival for two decades, at a time when corporate sponsorship cannot always be taken for granted.

Finding solutions to climate challenges is not easy. But, as CapX’s outgoing editor John Ashmore pointed out recently, headline-grabbing publicity stunts put burnishing activists’ own climate credentials above the urgent necessity to actually take serious action. Don’t forget either that the Government, for all its recent green-bashing, is heartily committed to a wholesale reworking of the British economy towards low-carbon energy and transport.

Condemnation and intolerance are easy these days, and the Maid of Stockholm has made them her stock in trade. What’s much less clear, however, is what Thunberg’s solutions actually are, or what she wants politicians to do, beyond a rather vague cry to ‘take action!’. Perhaps she would benefit from reading those famous words of Teddy Roosevelt:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.