"What is happening?" asked author and activist Naomi Klein in a recent piece penned for the Guardian. "Are fossil fuel companies – long toxic to our natural environment – becoming toxic in the public relations environment as well? It seems so."
As fossil fuel divestment victories pile up this fall, from universities to cities to corporate campaigns, advocates say this growing global effort is proving a viable strategy for taking on the powerful industry driving global warming.
The metropolitan area of Örebro became the first in Sweden last week to commit to removing its funds from fossil fuel. However, they are not the first in the world: 30 other local authorities have made similar pledges, from San Francisco in the United States to Boxtel in the Netherlands. "Cities serious about sustainability need to follow Örebro’s example. You cannot talk about sustainability while funding an industry that is causing climate wreckage," said Olivia Linander, 350.org Divestment Organiser for Sweden.
Earlier this month, the University of Glasgow in Scotland became the first educational institution in Europe to vote in favor of divesting its endowment—which is in the millions of dollars—from the fossil fuel industry.
And after a sustained pressure campaign from Greenpeace, Lego announced earlier this month it will not renew its contract with Shell. "It’s a huge blow to Shell’s strategy of partnering with beloved brands to mask its plans to drill in the Arctic," Greenpeace activist Fran Grobke declared immediately following Lego’s announcement.
These latest victories follow other significant ones. Thirteen U.S. universities, including Stanford University, as well as the World Council of Churches and the British Medical Association are just a few of the institutions that have committed to divest. Meanwhile, campus communities are leading divestment campaigns at universities across the world, from South Africa to Germany.
Every time a new institution or brand decides to cut its ties, every time the divestment argument is publicly made, it reinforces the idea that fossil fuel profits are illegitimate – that “these are now rogue industries”, in the words of author Bill McKibben. And it is this illegitimacy that has the potential to break the stalemate in meaningful climate action. Because if those profits are illegitimate, and this industry is rogue, it brings us a step closer to the principle that has been sorely missing from the collective climate response so far: the polluter pays.
And as Franlin Ginn argues in the Ecologist:
The divestment movement confronts the core logic - licence, extract, profit - of fossil fuel companies. One key tactic to make it harder for them to extract carbon is to erode their political legitimacy.
By divesting, organisations such as the World Council of Churches send a strong message: we find your activities immoral.