Divestment isn’t just about pulling money out of investor-owned fossil fuel companies, but about reshaping the conversation — and legislation — around global carbon emissions.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee titled Restoring the Quality of our Environment. “By the year 2000,” it read, “the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 percent. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.” That year, global CO2 emissions reached about 320 parts per million. 

While scientists and policy makers tend to say that “dangerous anthropogenic interference” or DAI will occur when global CO2 hits 450 ppm, climate scientist James Hanson, who created one of the world’s first climate models several decades ago, was ringing the alarm back in 2009. He desperately voiced that the number should be no more than 350 parts per million. That year it reached 385 ppm. In 2019, global CO2 levels hit 415 ppm

“If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel use makes up 65 percent of global CO2 emissions. A third of that number can be attributed to just 20 fossil fuel companies, eight of which are investor owned (the others are state owned). As early as 2010, there were murmurings of a new movement to target these companies and those who had invested in them. Inspired by the divestment movement against aparteid South Africa back in the 1980s, this one set its sights on universities that held stock in investor-owned fossil fuel companies. “The logic of divestment couldn’t be simpler,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org wrote after a multi-campus “Do the Math” tour led from a biodiesel bus. “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”


So far, pension funds, faith-based institutions, entire cities, the Norwegian government, and even the heirs of John D. Rockefeller, whose entire fortune was built on oil, have divested from fossil fuel. They count among the 1,244 institutions that have either totally or partially committed to divestment. In dollars, that is about $14.61 trillion.

Increasingly, public pensions in states throughout the nation, and nations throughout the world, have been called upon to follow suit. In 2018, France’s public sector pensions manager, Caisse de dépôts et consignations (CDC), announced that it would no longer invest in companies that make at least 10 percent of their profit from coal. The year prior, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) divested all of its coal investments. The ultimate goal, according to fossilfree.org, is to reinvest that money in more ethical enterprises like smaller, community-controlled initiatives, democratic workplaces, renewable energy, and zero-carbon infrastructure projects.

But there are detractors to the movement too. Some, like billionaire Bill Gates, contend that divestment from fossil fuels will have little to no climate impact. Legal analysts dispute that institutions divesting from fossil fuels don’t take stakeholder opinions into account (the opposite argument could be made just as well). Other opponents argue that social change is outside the purview of making investments, which are naturally rooted in performance and fiduciary responsibility and not ethics. 

In fact, in June, the Department of Labor proposed regulations to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that would make it more difficult for pension funds to invest in environmental, social, or corporate governance (ESGs). If enacted, the amendment states that plan fiduciaries would have to make investments solely based on monetary returns. The pandemic, however, may have altered public values for the foreseeable future, as investments in ESGs, which had already quadrupled in 2019, saw record surges in the past few months. 


“The campaign,” fossilfree.org says, “began in an effort to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry — the financial impact was secondary to the socio-political impact.” But money, real money, is on the line and arguments for divestment also include the belief that the fossil fuel industry will ultimately tank anyway, so why not jump ship now. Like ESGs then, which fall into the category of green capitalism, divestment is just one of many tactics. Some are about optics rather than outcomes, and others, about a long game that will pay off as other net-zero carbon initiatives are put into place. 

Yet, as the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has stated in a recent financial analysis of divestment patterns, the nature of divestment initiatives is that they have slowly chipped away at the fossil fuel industry’s reputation, which make take a toll on how much regulatory power the fossil fuel lobby has long wielded in legislative chambers. Maybe most importantly, divestment campaigns, they continue, aren’t just aimed at fossil fuel companies, but at “decision-makers, including legislatures, courts, or corporate boards, with specific responsibility for the economy.” 

The campus divestment movement fell into a lull after the first strong wave of university divestitures. But there is a renewed attempt toward equipping student organizers with the skills to run their own divestment campaigns, including through the Better Future Project, which shows where active and inactive campaigns exist. The organization also offers resources on how to build a team, plan a campaign strategy, train a base, and take action. 350.org also offers a series of online workshops for building a strong base, covering topics from “Having Climate Change Conversations,” and “Intro to Campaigning,” to “Climate Change Science 101.” And in response to COVID-19, they are now offering tools on how to organize online


The pandemic and imminent presidential election continue to ignite greater social consciousness around divestment, the Green New Deal, and climate justice, movements defined by the energy of a new generation.


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