‘Go after the money’: Goldman environmental prize winner honoured for urging banks to divest from coal

·7 min read


The laptop was second-hand, but Julien Vincent had a spare room and a very, very big idea: could he start a movement to convince Australia’s biggest financial institutions to stop investing the billions of dollars that sustained the fossil fuel industry?

“There wasn’t much to lose really,” says Vincent. “But yes, I was nervous early on because of the significance of the people we were taking on. The banks and the fossil fuel industry … they’ll be as cold and ruthless as they can be.”

One decade later, what that idea became – Vincent’s campaign group, Market Forces – has helped push all four of Australia’s big banks to commit to ending investments in coal by 2030.

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In the public mind, climate crisis campaigning looks like marches, placards, stunts and activists chained to railway lines and coal conveyor belts. Vincent’s approach saw climate activism pulling on a business suit to sit down in the offices, boardrooms and shareholder meetings of financial institutions.

Today Vincent is awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, described by some as the “Green Nobel”.

He is honoured for creating a “challenging financial landscape for the Australian coal industry, a significant step toward reducing fossil fuels that hasten climate change”.

With that award, Vincent’s work stands alongside previous winners that were at the centre of some of Australia’s most famous environmental battles – from saving the Franklin River to blocking uranium mining.

Climate not weather

Growing up in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, Vincent was no more interested in the environment than most young people. A pivotal moment came when he went to Monash University to do a degree in atmospheric science.

“I wanted to be weatherman,” he says. But among the lecturers on his course was Prof David Karoly – a veteran of Australian climate science. What Karoly and other lecturers outlined to the student Vincent was pivotal.

“I was being confronted with all these charts and it was like I was in on a terrible secret that these scientists were desperately trying to get out.

“I could see those charts and their profound consequences. It was off the scale. I was all in by the time I’d finished those first couple of climate science lectures.”

Vincent finished his degree with honours in arts and climatology, but didn’t know what to do with it. He had some savings from working in a bottle shop.

He quit, paid off the lease on his Melbourne flat and took a few volunteer roles and, crucially, a four-month internship at Greenpeace which turned into a job as a campaigner. “I had no money, but I had time,” he says.

In 2012, while working at Greenpeace, Vincent was part of a campaign that blocked a new coal power station being built at Morwell.

That campaign, Vincent says, was successful because it targeted the legitimacy of the project’s income stream – in that case, federal and state government grants.

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“I was starting to win campaigns by going after the money. I thought: why isn’t there a group in Australia that’s focused on that day in, day out?”

So, armed with that second-hand laptop, Vincent researched who was financing coal projects and tallied up the billions being spent by Australia’s big four banks – Commonwealth, NAB, ANZ and Westpac.

He named his venture Market Forces. Slowly adding to the original one-man band, Market Forces would publish their results, organise public protests and “divestment days” where customers would close accounts at banks that backed coal.

At the same time, Vincent says his campaign meets the financial institutions – from chief executives to managers – to outline their campaign plans.

Blair Palese, a long-term climate campaigner who founded the group 350.org in Australia, worked alongside Vincent in some of those early campaigns.

“Julien is an Everest climber,” she says. “He is a very determined and focused human being. We had a great time doing very hard stuff.”

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She says while many environmental campaigns will have a short lifespan, Vincent and Market Forces stuck to the task. It meant the financial institutions he was meeting and campaigning against “know he’s going to turn up next month to check on them”.

“Julien holds them accountable every day,” Palese says.

People power

A 2019 pledge from the Commonwealth bank to stop funding thermal coal by 2030 was a tipping point for the campaign, Vincent says, with the other three major banks following soon after.

“That was years of campaigning – we had divestment days, shareholder actions,” he says, as well as a string of meetings with bank bosses.

“The lesson was that you can get to a point of mutual understanding and trust. We were not satisfied with what they were doing, and they didn’t appreciate our campaigning. But we had years of meetings and there was an understanding. It’s about being genuine and sincere.”

Market Forces also published detailed research showing how the banks and superannuation funds used by Australians were supporting fossil fuel projects.

“People are very powerful,” he says. “The role of people like me is to create the context and the conditions for them to use that power. They take the information and then do something with it.”

As Market Forces started to gain traction, the attacks started. Vincent says he’s had legal letters from mining companies and many uncomfortable meetings.

In 2019 the former prime minister, Scott Morrison, and then attorney general Christian Porter attacked Vincent’s work, with the latter describing Market Forces as a “radical activist” group that was trying to “impose their political will on companies across the country through widespread, coordinated harassment and threats of boycotts”. Porter said he would try to explore legal options to curtail the campaigns.

“There’s a correlation between the risk and the discomfort you feel, and the change that you get,” Vincent says. “But there’s so much of humanity and ecosystems to save and to fight for. What better way is there to be than to try and protect that?”

Market Forces – now with a staff of more than 20, and bases in Australia and Asia – started with a focus on coal and banks, but now targets other financiers and insurers of fossil fuel projects.

The campaign’s core goal is to “stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry”, Vincent says, “because that is the moment we are at. We’re here to stop runaway climate change”.

He is worried that a move to massively expand liquified natural gas – LNG – could be just as damaging to the climate as the coal it claims to be replacing. The campaign is funded by about 1,000 regular donors and 10 philanthropic sources.

Overwhelming honour

Each year the Goldman prize names a “hero of the environment” from six different regions around the world. This is only the fifth year the prize has gone to Australia since its launch in 1990.

Bob Brown was one of the inaugural recipients for his role as an “irresistible moral force” spearheading the campaign to protect Tasmania’s Franklin River.

“Were it not for Bob Brown’s beautiful and elegant defences of the environment, decency and common sense, I would not be involved [in environmental campaigning]. A huge part of this honour is that I’m on a list that starts with Bob Brown,” Vincent says.

Other previous Goldman prize winners have fought some of Australia’s most famous environmental battles that blocked sand-mining and logging on Queensland’s Fraser Island, fought uranium mining in Kakadu national park and stood against a nuclear waste dump in South Australia.

“To put my work on a footing with that is a bit overwhelming,” says Vincent. “I feel very very proud.”

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