The fossil fuel divestment movement is moving more quickly than any divestment movement of the past. Starting at Swarthmore College in 2010, the movement exploded on university campuses and among other institutions that manage large investment funds, such as philanthropic organizations and varying levels of government, when international environmental organization 350.org launching a worldwide campaign in 2012.
Activists and supporters of the campaign, myself included, argue that divestment is a tried and true strategy that environmental activists can use to initiate necessary structural change via governmental policies to reduce our dependence on dirty fuels.
Beyond government, institutions that lead our society--universities in education, philanthropies in altruism, and economic organizations in growth--combat climate science denial funded by the fossil fuel industry and manipulated by politicians, raise public awareness on the human rights implications that arise from a changing climate, and support economic and environmental priorities for sustainable living.
But some are unconvinced, including journalists covering the campaign, and the fossil fuel industry, which funds studies finding divestment to be ineffective. This skepticism comes from the difficulty in measuring divestment’s impact, as well as powerful stakeholders’ ability to manufacture doubt.
I often talk with my professors to convince them to throw their support behind my university’s campaign. One in the economics department exemplified the difficulty in understanding the power of divestment. He stood up, switched off the light in his office and stated matter-of-factly, “Now that’s real.” Never mind that roughly half of Illinois’ electricity comes from nuclear energy or that the money saved from switching off the light might be put toward one of the university’s never-ending, energy-intensive construction projects.
This encounter demonstrates the gap in understanding of how best to fight climate change. In economic terms--something this professor would understand--it involves opportunity cost. Any little action (like turning off the lights) is good, but environmental activists need to focus on tactics that effect the most change in the shortest period of time. My professor contends that even if every university divested, the direct impact on fossil fuel stock prices is likely to be negligible. But making this argument, as a reason to oppose divestment, is fundamentally wrong in that it is incomplete, which is why fossil fuel companies support studies stating this argument but at the same time worry what this divestment movement might do to their companies. Activists pursue divestment because it is a highly effective means of publicly denouncing companies that put profits over people and the planet, as well as increasing public pressure for political action on climate change.
Thus far, policy to mitigate and adapt to climate change and alleviate issues of environmental injustice has been vastly inadequate. Further, politics of the 1990s and 2000s have led to the fossil fuel industry being subsidized $10 million every minute, per an International Monetary Fund estimate. The IMF also found that the richest twenty percent receive over two-fifths of the benefits of these subsidies, while the poorest twenty percent cash in at only seven percent. Climate change modelling also predicts the poor will also suffer the most from the effects of continued fossil fuel use. The finding debunks industry rhetoric that environmental activists are ignoring the needs of the poor. Under a business-as-usual scenario for fossil fuel consumption, industrialized countries will continue to pollute the planet with the poorest being subjected to the worst of its effects.
The bottom line is that divestment campaigns have proven to be a successful approach for global change. Research conducted by Oxford University in 2012 found, “In almost every divestment campaign we reviewed… [the movements] were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.” Such legislation may incorporate a carbon tax or limitations on emissions from power plants and automobiles. Specific examples from past divestment campaigns include the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007. Such policy for fossil fuel divestment would look like a carbon tax or legislation restricting emissions from power plants and automobiles.
The capability of divestment to create the political change we need is why influential leaders have backed the movement. Desmond Tutu, a renowned activist who promoted divestment from the Apartheid regime, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian supporting a similar campaign for action on climate change. Likewise, President Obama, possibly drawing from his experience as an anti-Apartheid college activist, encouraged college students at Georgetown University to push for divestment in 2013. Georgetown divested from coal this past June after an extensive campaign by the student-led organization GU Fossil Free.
While one university or other institution may not have an impact, as institutions divest, they can create a domino effect. I have witnessed this personally in discussion with my university’s CIO and Trustees, which routinely features Stanford’s divestment decision. The power of divestment comes from the collective action of activists and institutions, which is notable because the fossil fuel divestment campaign has been moving faster than any movement of its kind. Despite all the criticism and industry opposition that the movement has received, it will continue to grow and, along with the broader climate action movement, spark sorely needed international action on climate change. Those who oppose divestment, from the individual belittling it as a feel-good action to those making decisions for their respective institutions, will not stop it. However, they are casting doubt on a proven and powerful tactic for change. And in turn, this doubt slows down the movement by giving reluctant investors a pass for inaction. The last thing we need to be doing when acting on climate change is slowing down.