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Sierra Club

How Trade Activism and Divestment Go Hand-in-Hand

(Photo: Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program)


Across the U.S., hundreds of thousands of climate activists are engaged in a fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade deal being negotiated between the United States and 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, fossil fuel divestment activists are pushing institutions to pull investments from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies and reinvest in climate change solutions, highlighting that they have more on reserve than we’ll ever safely be able to burn. Both movements are critical in the fight for a stable climate, and climate activists dedicated to the fight for a clean energy economy can amplify efforts by engaging in both.

Trade and climate activists oppose TPP provisions that mandate the Department of Energy’s automatic approval of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to TPP countries. This policy would pave the way for more fracking and more climate-disrupting emissions. They also oppose “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS)--part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would empower corporations to sue governments in private tribunals over policies that they claim reduce their expected profits. Shocking investor-state cases in places like Quebec show that the fossil fuel industry uses ISDS to keep business as usual. Trade activists directly challenge these policies, and the damage that companies like Shell and ExxonMobil can bring to our climate, by fighting  free trade agreements like the TPP.

These kinds of infractions against our chance for a livable climate are what the fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to bring to the forefront of political conversations on climate disruption. They constitute the industry’s business model, and fossil fuel divestment activists are demanding that their institutions reject this business model by revoking the most powerful endorsement of a business model they have - their choice to invest. This public rejection serves as a motivator for citizens and government officials alike to focus their attention and action on the fossil fuel industry as the root cause of the climate crisis.  


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The campaigns for fair trade and fossil fuel divestment are both critical components of a common movement to keep carbon in the ground and prevent companies from profiting off of the destruction of our planet. Both have dragged the actions of industry into the light and demanded public debate, making political space for our leaders to say no to fossil fuel industry influence and put us on track for a clean energy economy. We see shreds of evidence that this kind of leadership is coming in statements issued by people like U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and even the Pope - calling for new economic paradigms that are more sustainable and more just.

While recent developments in divestment and trade activism are already shaping political and economic conversations about climate disruption, we’ll find even greater opportunities for growth and success when the members of both movements recognize their common stake in moving our economy beyond fossil fuels. With divestment activists and advocates for responsible trade actively engaged in both fights, our movements will only grow stronger from here.

Sidni Frederick

Sidni Frederick is an intern with the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program.

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