The Divestment Movement: Real Action for Change

Image by Kamyar Adl, Fossil Free Oxfordshire Divestment Campaign

We are living in worrying, but also fairly exciting times. Most of the people alive on the surface of the planet now know about the threat from climate change. Some people are so worried about what it means for ‘business as usual’ economics and politics, heavily based on fossil fuels, that they are actively trying to deny it, or at least deny any human cause.

The most prominent deniers are, very often, the big fossil fuel corporations themselves, household names we know from advertising and garish signs on fuel station forecourts. Some of the biggest have for several years been actively involved in trying to block action on climate change, using a whole range of tactics from direct political lobbying through to community grassroots campaigning in media comments pages, an approach now popularly termed ‘astroturfing’.

However, the global population, increasingly, is having none of this. Over the years, action against man-made climate change has grown phenomenally in its momentum, from grassroots campaigning to a global and rapidly growing renewable energy sector to constant pressure on the world’s governments to get clean energy policies implemented as fast as possible. More recently, another approach has joined clean energy and political campaigning: divestment. Suddenly, the giant fossil fuel corporations are, at last, starting to sit up and take notice.

What is divestment? Quite simply, rather than investing funds in a particular business or market, you take out the funds you’ve already got in there, or refuse to invest those funds in the first place. In essence, you get rid of the stocks or bonds you consider to be unacceptable. Hence the term divest.

Earlier divestment movements have been particularly successful in achieving their aims. An example is the divestment movement in Darfur aiming to end violence. Another was the movement against the tobacco industry. Perhaps the most famous divestment process of them all was the campaign against South African Apartheid. This helped to break the back of the South African Government, forcing it to scrap Apartheid and introduce democracy and equality.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign has followed suit and its phenomenal growth across the surface of the planet means that it is already the most successful divestment campaign ever. Its aim is to highlight the moral dimensions of the discussion around climate change and to break the ability of the fossil fuel industry to block action against it.

One of the main organisations driving this process internationally is the climate campaign group which is running a campaign called Fossil Free. This in turn is asking organisations to do two things: First, to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and secondly, to divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years

How did all this start?

“It started in the US on university campuses as a solidarity campaign between students and their local communities” says Danielle Paffard from “However, students began to realise that their own institutions were investing in fossil fuels also and that’s where it really began to get moving. It really took off with Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone Magazine in which he mentioned the three critical numbers people should take notice of.

  • The first number is 2 (degrees C), the temperature at which climate change becomes a real recipe for long term disaster.
  • The second number is 565 (gigatons), the rough estimate of how much more carbon humans can send into the atmosphere before straying over the 2 degrees limit.
  • The third number is 2,795 (gigatons), the amount of carbon already contained in proven oil reserves, that is the reserves that the oil companies are ready and willing to extract and burn. Bear in mind that, like any other large corporation, an oil company has to carry on searching for more reserves to replace the proven reserves once they’ve been consumed. That makes 2,795 the scariest number of the three, and it’s the number that really woke people up.

McKibbens article built up the narrative of the fossil fuel industry as public enemy No 1 and since then the divestment movement has gone global with well over 1000 local campaigns around the world. If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. It’s that simple.”

The US fossil fuel divestment movement is still the strongest, because that’s where it started, but the movement’s expansion around the world has been very impressive. Some of the biggest victories have been in Europe, for example the Danish Pension Fund and before that the Guardian Media Group. Warwick University joined just this week. There are also new campaigns emerging in Africa, Asia and Australia.

Danielle says that the response from the fossil fuel industry is very interesting and rewarding. “They see it as a real threat” she remarks. “On top of that, we are also seeing changes in the financial sector, in the G20, the Bank of England and others. Its big advantage is that it is decentralised and simple, so that means local communities can just pick it up and run with it. The aim is to de-legitimise the social license of the fossil fuel industry so they can no longer block the kind of changes we need. We should see an effect at the Paris summit later this year. Ultimately, we hope to reach the same kind of position we saw with tobacco, where the fossil fuel industry is no longer a socially, politically or economically acceptable phenomenon.”

There have been arguments that if an organisation sells all of its stocks in fossil fuels, someone else will just buy them up. However, that is not an argument the movement recognises or focuses on. This campaign is political, not financial. It is not aiming to bankrupt companies, it is merely trying to create a moral and political impetus. If the Church of England suddenly declares that investment in fossil fuels is no longer morally acceptable, that has a massive political effect, and that’s the goal.

So what are organisations to do with the money they withdraw from the fossil fuel industry or refuse to invest?

“In many cases people are just focused on divestment” Danielle explains. “Sometimes, particularly in the charitable sector, there is a divest/invest approach. We’re already seeing movements in large organisations to reinvest in renewable energy and in many ways it’s what inspires people to take part. As a result we hope to see real continued growth in renewable energy as this campaign continues to expand and build.”

Over the years the fossil fuel sector has dominated the discussion on energy, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to continue for too much longer. And the great thing about divestment is that anybody who is concerned about climate change and wants to see a real clean energy future, can join in. Over to you.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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