Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement by Samantha Jakuboski, March 25 2015, 1 Comment

Looking back to the late 1900s, college campuses always seemed to be at the forefront of social justice and activism. From the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s to the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square Protest-turned-Massacre in China in 1989, students and scholars openly called out and demanded change to what they believed to be society’s social, political, and economical injustices. And today’s college-going generation is no different. As a New York City college student, I am experiencing firsthand the sheer magnitude of campus protests and demonstrations that occur weekly. Every day, it seems as if a new crowd of people is marching down Columbia’s College Walk, chanting some fresh slogan. And honestly, I cannot keep track of the different movements. There is, however, one ongoing campaign that has caught my attention—the Divest from Fossil Fuel Movement.

Divest from Fossil Fuels, started in 2010 by 350.org, is an international movement which strives to persuade large corporations—most notably religious organizations, insurance companies, retirement funds, and universities—to withdraw, or divest, their capital and endowment funds from the largest 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. With climate change intensifying and causing noticeable impacts on storm severity, droughts, and weather patterns, it is becoming increasingly clear that we must cap our fossil fuel emissions and use more sustainable and renewable sources of energy. The aim of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement is to encourage change and stop climate change from intensifying by lobbying for:

  • The divestment of financial capital in the fossil fuel industry
  • The investment in more renewable energy sources
  • A promise by the fossil fuel companies to keep 80% of their reserves in the ground
  • Legislation banning further mining and drilling of oil, coal and natural gas

Currently, 26 colleges and universities around the world (as well as 70 religious institutions and almost 50 other organizations), have committed to divesting. Although 26 is just a mere handful of the thousands of colleges around the world, this number may increase in the future thanks to staunch student activism and the establishment of Divest from Fossil Fuel movements on over 300 campuses. Through the gatherings on campus, signing of petitions, social media, and other forms of nonviolent demonstrations and activism, students are putting pressure on their school leaders to sell their stocks and withhold the future purchase of any more stocks and bonds in the fossil duel industry. The persistence and unexpected actions of some of these campus movements have been making headlines lately. Last month, students and faculty of Harvard University, which has the largest university endowment in the world, sparked outrage when they staged a sit-in in the university’s administrative building outside the university president's office. Additionally, on March 16, when Oxford University decided that it would defer its decision over divesting, enraged Oxford alumni occupied an administrative building. And, most recently, over 40 students at Swarthmore College staged a days-long sit-in outside the college’s Finance and Investment Office!

Yet, even in the face of such unrelenting activism by the members of their school communities, the leaders of many universities, such as Harvard’s president, still refuse to divest, claiming, in part, that their school will have little impact on the fossil fuel industry. Regarding potential economical impacts, such claims may have some merit, as some sources argue that even if all colleges make the pledge, and hundreds of billions of dollars are divested, this will probably not impart great financial pressure and instability on the trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry. However, there is more to the movement than just economics; divesting is considered to be both a social and political statement that helps to increase awareness around the world of the dangers of fossil fuels and the need for change in energy sources. By making it publicly known that a business is divesting, its leader can help raise such awareness and contribute to the growing stigmatism that surrounds the fossil fuel industry. This, in turn, can have a moral impact on people, influencing them to use less fossil fuels, look for cleaner energy sources, and spurn any corporation with close ties to the fossil fuel industry .

Colleges and universities, in particular, can be very influential in this movement, for they are looked to by companies around the world as role models when it comes to implementing new plans and changes. In the past, for instance, the Divest from South Africa Movement, which started on college campuses to rid South Africa of apartheid, influenced large corporations, such as banks and pension funds, to cease doing business with South Africa. Eventually, South Africa conceded and ended segregation. Today, if colleges and universities, especially distinguished and prominent ones like Harvard, make the pledge to divest, the same wave of action can happen, creating a domino effect in which corporations, and even other colleges, will decide to follow lead and divest as well. Such actions by colleges can truly be effective vehicles for change.

With the 2016 election coming up, the topic of climate change is likely to influence candidate campaigns. It is obvious that climate change is a problem our society will have to deal with in the coming years, and it is vital that change be implemented now. The Divest from Fossil Fuels Movement is helping to spread the awareness needed for change, and it is putting pressure on corporate leaders and politicians alike to reconsider their stance on climate change and think about the dangers of fossil fuels. Divest from Fossil Fuels has garnered the support of many powerful people, such as President Obama, Al Gore, and the members of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, and this powerful movement will also find the support of many others as it continues to grow and raise awareness.