A small quake is rippling through the arts in Scotland. Last week, 50 authors, including Zadie Smith, threatened to boycott next year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival if its sponsor, Baillie Gifford, doesn’t divest from fossil fuels.

But without the firm's funding, many believe the arts in this country would be shot. Go to most of our key cultural events and you’ll find their logo pasted on the wall. The are central to our cultural life.

Who is chiefly to blame for this threat is a moot point. Perhaps Greta Thunberg, who cancelled her headline talk at the festival because of the news that Baillie Gifford had £4.5 billion invested in companies who have some involvement in oil and gas and £677 million in those with some involvement in coal. Or perhaps the investigative news outfit, The Ferret, which published the news, and have been covering Baillie Gifford's investments for years.

Certainly, most would say, it’s those darned authors threatening to boycott, and, of all companies, Baillie Gifford, such a harmless villain, with only 2% of its investments in fossil fuel companies.

The recent UCI cycling world championships in Glasgow offered a better, more shocking target – Shell’s logo flashing from the triceps of the British team cyclists – but the outrage cooled quickly in spite of protestors glued to the street. Shell's new investments in oil and gas increased by 10% over the past year to a massive £11.4 billion. Why has Baillie Gifford and the book festival been more explosive?

There are, I think, two reasons for this. One is that the arts, and authors, are central to the conversation about climate change. The other is that organisations which seem to be making some efforts to fight emissions are easier targets.

Few of us, I imagine, believe that the big oil companies will do anything other than make as much money as they can from fossil fuels. But with a company like Baillie Gifford, which has made well-publicised efforts to green, there’s something to work with. This is a company that in 2019 even lobbied the Scottish Government to work towards “making Scotland a carbon neutral economy”.

The question being asked right now is just how bad Baillie Gifford really is – and defenders in the arts are saying that they are the good guys. Whenever I hear that what I immediately think is that none of us are the good guys; all of us need to do better. All of us, in a world in which it is still impossible to extricate ourselves from the lifeblood of oil and gas, are tainted.

It's worth noting that the companies in which Baillie Gifford  has 2% of the investments it manages actually have varying involvement in oil and gas (and range from energy giants to Tesco, with its petrol stations). These are companies which make 5% or more of their revenue from oil and gas. 

That 2% also compares favourably with the industry average of 11%, and, as a company, a spokesperson said last week, it invests 5% of its clients'  money "in companies whose sole purpose is to develop clean energy solutions."

However, that £4.5 billion is not insignificant. If you are someone who might feel it would be understandable that authors might protest at Shell, why not Baillie Gifford?

There is a context here that is worth reiterating. Oil and gas investment is globally on the rise. We are, according to a recent Goldman Sachs Research, in an investment boom in oil and gas projects – with a 25% increase on 2020 and 70 major projects under development worldwide. In the UK, we have seen Rishi Sunak’s recent confirmation of over 100 new oil and gas licenses.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of wildfires, record-breaking temperatures and shrinking Antarctic ice, as well as the message from the International Energy Agency, that, to reach Net Zero by 2050, we can afford no more oil, gas and coal developments.

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You can react to that in any number of ways – by climate change denial, assuming blithely it will all get fixed, gluing a part of your body to something, harnessing yourself to local positive change, pointing out that even Net Zero plans revolve around us using some oil and gas right up to 2050, or just burying your head in the sand. But I would say that trying to find leverage points through which to reduce investment in oil and gas is a valid response.

Baillie Gifford, of course, has a persuasive defence in its comparison with the rest of its industry. Over the last five years, fossil fuel exposure within Baillie Gifford clients’ investments has fallen 30%. It is also clear that the firm has long invested in the energy transition and been forward-thinking in identifying innovative companies like Tesla, or Northvolt, the green battery manufacturer.

Meanwhile, waters are muddied by the fact energy giants are developing both renewables and fossil fuels. Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley pointed out that invested companies included Danish windfarm specialist, Ørsted, which was mandated by the Danish government "to keep two coal-fired power stations open until 2024 as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - and that is the only reason why a small percentage of their income still comes from fossil fuels.”

A fair point. But Baillie Gifford still, for instance, has holdings in various companies involved in gas extraction and the Brazilian national oil company, Petrobras, which was recently blocked from drilling for oil at the mouth of the Amazon. 

There is a bigger question over how we fund the arts. The cultural landscape of recent years lies littered with the crumpled logos of past shamed sponsors. Edinburgh Science is a good example of the shift. Once sponsored by Exxon and Total, it now lists Scottish Power, Edinburgh Airport, the British Army and – wait for it – Baillie Gifford.

But, arts funding aside, in a world in which most of us feel pretty helpless to make significant change through personal choices, the boycott and divestment movement offers the possibility to push for something bigger, and is not to be ridiculed - though it will be. 

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At least one of these rebel authors is, like Greta Thunberg, a seasoned activist for whom the climate is the paramount issue. Mikaela Loach, who as a medical student took the UK Government to court over its strategy on North Sea oil and gas, staged a walk-out of an event.

I interviewed Loach earlier this year and she talked about the need for a just transition. There's another kind of transition, I believe, that also needs to be fostered  - one in which we manage also bring along the many other things that we value about humanity and its society, including a vibrant public space for the change of ideas. How we do that is one of the questions raised by this boycott threat.

Nick Barley asks in his own response to the authors' letter, "Can we talk?" 

You could say that the boycott threat was a provocative opener to an important conversation about how we invest in fossil fuel. I hope it is.