Climate crusader Schwarzenegger profits from deforestation
June 11, 2014 | 2508 views
In advance of the 2014 UN Climate Summit to be held in September, we asked some of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to share with us their perspectives, insights and solutions on how best to tackle, in a catalytic way, the many challenges associated with climate change. Participating organizations in this discussion include Forest Trends, Friends of the Earth Middle East, Independent Diplomat, Global Witness, Healthcare Without Harm, Root Capital and Skoll Global Threats Fund. Stay tuned for updates!
Huge tracts of forest have gone up in smoke in California, Arizona and Alaska in recent weeks, lending strength to claims that wildfire season is no longer seasonal in parts of the US, but happens all year round. The increased frequency and ferocity of wildfires is one of the topics of James Cameron’s Years of Living Dangerously, a Showtime documentary series that concluded this week and dramatically illustrates the causes and effects of global warming.
Global Witness’ own investigations into the drivers of climate change meanwhile revealed a twist in the documentary’s behind-the-scenes plot – one of the show’s biggest stars is bankrolling the very destruction he campaigns against.
“People are used to seeing me play the hero, standing up to the toughest bad guys…Today I’m taking on a real life bad guy, one that threatens all of humanity – climate change.” The unmistakable voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger narrates as we see him donning a yellow fire-proof coat and addressing a crowd of firefighters in a forest clearing.
Schwarzenegger is both executive producer of Years of Living Dangerously and one of its hosts. He is shown embedded with firefighters in Idaho, tackling wildfires which are now gobbling thousands of acres of woodland year round.
In a parallel crusade, the series sends Harrison Ford to Indonesia to visit endangered orangutan reserves and make a personal appeal to the country’s president to halt deforestation. Ford flies over the smouldering remnants of some of Indonesia’s supposedly protected tropical forests, cleared for palm oil cultivation.
This creates what’s known as black carbon, Ford learns, fine particulate matter that contributes to global warming. Scientists he consulted say that since 1990 Indonesia has lost a quarter of its forests. And globally an area of forest the size of Germany is being cleared each year.
As the documentary demonstrates, forest loss is both a trigger and impact of climate change. Fewer trees mean more heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which increase temperatures to the point that in arid climates forests can self-combust. Globally, deforestation contributes about the same amount of CO2 as exhaust fumes from transport.
The logical response would be to stop trees from being cut down in the first place, but efforts to do that have consistently failed. This is because of both the unfounded belief amongst policy makers that logging brings development, despite evidence to the contrary, and the vast profits to be made from products like palm oil, soy and beef that are cultivated on deforested land. Among the most obvious profiteers are the businesses and officials that strike the deals. But sometimes – wired through the capillaries of international markets – profits from forest destruction turn up in the most unexpected of places. Including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bank account.
As Years of Living Dangerously’s illustrious investigators were being deployed across the globe, Global Witness was on a mission of its own, to find out who – knowingly or otherwise – is financially linked to companies that are bulldozing through our forests. We are researching financial flows to reveal which well-known banks and institutional investors have collectively financed 50 of the world’s major tropical forestry companies.
One of the most prolific is Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), a major US investment firm that holds more than three-quarters of a billion dollars’ worth of shares in logging and palm oil companies, including one previously linked to illegal logging and arms trafficking during a brutal civil war in Liberia; and palm oil companies in Indonesia that Harrison Ford cites in Years of Living Dangerously as particularly destructive.
Schwarzenegger is part-owner of DFA, which manages US$338 billion for clients worldwide.
Arnold Schwarzenegger does aspire to be a real-life climate hero. As governor of California he spearheaded a raft of progressive environmental policies, and co-founded the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, a subnational collaboration between 22 states across five continents. But DFA, Schwarzenegger and his people have consistently evaded this issue, refusing to consider this to be a hypocrisy worthy of divestment. In Years of Living Dangerously there is a strong recurring theme about facing truths through up-front conversation. It’s a shame then that one of its executive producers cannot do the same.
Deforestation is hard-wired into the international financial system. As the holders of bank accounts, bonds or pensions we need greater assurances that the institutions we invest in aren’t funding the destruction of the world’s last standing forests. Until those demands are met, even campaigns by the biggest stars in Hollywood will make little difference. Their money and potentially ours will keep flowing into forest loss, and ultimately forest fires.