It seems that every day now there’s another editorial, study, rant—even animations!—criticizing the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The pieces, usually written by lobbyists associated with fossil fuel companies, stodgy academics, or conservative politicians, usually cite the same arguments: divestment won’t make a financial difference, it’s a distraction from the “real work” of climate solutions, the world needs fossil fuels and we should be thanking Exxon for their generosity in providing them, etc.
"Thanks to the amazing activism of people around the world, the divestment campaign is having exactly the impact that we hoped it would."
The irony of all these articles, of course, is that their very publication is counterfactual. If divestment is such an ineffective campaign, then why is the fossil fuel industry spending so much time criticizing it? As Tom Zeller Jr. recently wrote in Forbes, “It seems clear the feisty divestment movement has reached a major new milestone in its short life: It has annoyed the fossil fuel juggernaut enough to warrant a full-fledged counter-campaign.”
When you hear someone shouting “those people don’t matter!” it’s usually a good sign that “those people” are beginning to make a serious impact. Which is exactly what the divestment campaign is doing. In 2012, the campaign got an early start on US campuses, with a focus on coal divestment. Now, there are active fossil fuel divestment campaigns at over 400 colleges and universities across the US, and hundreds more efforts underway targeting cities, states, foundations, and religious institutions worldwide. Medical associations are looking to divest. Pension funds are exploring their exposure to carbon risk. Individuals are pushing their banks to stop financing dirty energy. Everywhere you look, the campaign is spreading like wildfire.
This is especially exciting at the international level. This February 13th and 14th, 350.org is hosting Global Divestment Day, a series of events around the world to highlight just how global the divestment fight has become. In the UK, campaigners are targeting some of the country’s most iconic universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, as well as putting pressure on the Church of England to follow their fellow Anglican, Desmond Tutu, and commit to divestment. Across Europe, activists are pushing some of the continent’s biggest banks to cut back on their investments in fossil fuels, as well as hosting rallies in cities like Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam. In Canada, divestment campaigners have put tar sands companies at the top of their list, making an explicit connection between the struggles of indigenous peoples against tar sands extraction and the responsibility of public institutions to stop financing the destruction. The focus at US campuses that day will be asking their administrators, “Whose side are you on?”
The divestment campaign has also started to spread across the Global South, a region that has done little to contribute to the crisis of climate change, but whose richest banks, corporations, and institutions are beginning to play a more major role in financing the problem. Global Divestment Day will see events in Nigeria, Nepal, Peru, Vanuatu, and beyond, and beyond. In South Africa, the campaign has taken on particular historical resonance. Our current divestment campaign has drawn heavily on the anti-apartheid movement for inspiration. Now, our colleagues in South Africa are using the same strategy that helped confront past injustices to tackle one of today’s most pressing challenges.
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Meanwhile, there are few places where divestment has been making more of an impact than in Australia. Ever since campaigners convinced the Australian National University to divest from fossil fuels, the campaign has been front page news down under. The effort has been so effective that the mining industry, who are desperately trying to dig up some of the largest coal deposits on the planet in the Galilee Basin, have tried to declare divestment illegal. Conservative politicians who are in the fossil fuel industry’s pocketbook have gone on the offensive, attacking universities and other institutions who have divested. The response from our campaigners? Bring it on. It seems every week, we hear about another church, school, or foundation who is joining the fight.
Thanks to the amazing activism of all these people around the world, the divestment campaign is having exactly the impact that we hoped it would. Together, we’ve begun to chip away at the industry’s social license, successfully turning Big Oil into a pariah industry like Big Tobacco. We’ve helped push forward a dialogue about the risk the carbon bubble poses to our economy, convincing major institutions like the Bank of England to start evaluating their portfolios for carbon risk. Just this week, Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, one of the largest pools of money in the world, announced it was divesting from coal and tar sands companies because of the carbon risk. We’ve put major corporations on the defensive, prompting oil giants like Shell to say that they’re going to look at whether or not their business plans are compatible with the global goal of limiting warming to below 2°C (Hint: They’re not. Scientists have made it abundantly clear that you can’t be drilling in the Arctic if you’re at all serious about combating climate change).
Now, it’s time for us to turn up the heat. On Global Divestment Day, people around the world are going to be taking action on their campuses, in their communities, or at their places of worship, to push public institutions to divest from fossil fuels. In many places, people are going to be taking steps to escalate existing campaigns. Whether it’s hosting a sit-in to push a recalcitrant administration or officially launching a public campaign after months of behind the scenes lobbying, divestment activists are going to demonstrate that the movement is entering a new phase: direct confrontation with the status quo.
Solving the climate crisis is a race against the clock. In the fight against climate chaos, there is such a thing as ‘too late.’ Over the last year, the divestment movement has hit its stride. Now, it’s time to pick up the pace.