Carbon bubbles in the boardroom

New Internationalist

 The fossil fuel divestment movement is taking the world by storm. What started four years ago with students at a few US college campuses asking their universities to stop funding an industry whose business model is causing planetary disaster, has rapidly grown into an international movement with more than 500 active campaigns. But what has the divestment movement achieved so far?
The fossil fuel divestment movement is taking the world by storm. What started four years ago with students at a few US college campuses asking their universities to stop funding an industry whose business model is causing planetary disaster, has rapidly grown into an international movement with more than 500 active campaigns. But what has the divestment movement achieved so far?

1 – It got public institutions to ditch their fossil fuel holdings

Investors with a collective worth of more than $50 billion have pledged to drop their fossil fuel holdings – and that does not include thousands of individuals who have moved their money. The most symbolic commitment came from the heirs of the Rockefeller family, who made their fortune from oil. They announced that it was no longer morally acceptable or financially prudent to put their money in oil, gas and coal. This is just one example of the divestment commitments the movement has triggered. The immediate financial impact of these decisions will not bankrupt the industry. However, every institution taking a stance helps to erode the fossil fuel industry’s social acceptance and consequently their political power.

2 – It stirred a public debate

Fossil fuel divestment is a thing in mainstream media. The carbon bubble has entered board rooms and financial circles. High-ranking individuals got behind the campaign, such as anti-apartheid activist and former archbishop Desmond Tutu, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim; even US president Barack Obama spoke out in support. The social debate that the divestment movement is stirring is at least as important as the actual divestment wins it has achieved. The campaign wants to change social norms, and social change needs a public discourse.

3 – It inspired a movement

It is arguably a subjective observation to say that the dynamic and energy of this grassroots movement has created a new sense of hope and a new wave of climate activism. What is attested by an Oxford University study, is that it is the fastest growing movement of its kind. The divestment movement inspires people in more and more places to start campaigns themselves. Recently new campaigns kicked off in South Africa and the Pacific Islands. Japan will be next. Its infectious energy stems from its diversity and grassroots nature: this weekend, there will be a Fossil Free Nativity play in London. At Harvard, students are taking their university to court. A few days ago, an indigenous Saami singer led a flash mob in Stockholm urging the city to divest.

4 – It got the industry scared

The fossil fuel industry sees the divestment campaign as a threat, which is evident by the force with which it has started to fight back. The most absurd example might be the attack fossil fuel companies and politicians launched on the Australian National University following the university’s decision to divest. As Gandhi famously put it, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’

5 – It made a start at rewriting the rules of the game

Divestment is more than a tool to move money away from problems towards solutions. It fundamentally challenges the predominant paradigm of short-term-ism that is at the heart of the economic and climate crisis. Divestment disrupts this system by holding public institutions to account, demanding they act as stewards in the interest of the 99 per cent instead of serving the profits of the 1 per cent. We have a long way to go but challenging the role and responsibilities of public institutions is a first achievement in the transition to a model where public institutions support community-led solutions that help build an economy good for people and planet.

Where do we go from here?

A year from now, world leaders will gather in Paris to have another shot at securing a global climate deal. Given their far from impressive track record, we’re not taking our chances. As fossil fuel companies throw more money at fossil fuel expansion, we will turn up the volume of the divestment movement.

Help break the climate deadlock as we continue to weaken the political power of the fossil fuel industry. Join us on 13-14 February for Global Divestment Day. University students will hold flash mobs, vigils, sit-ins and rallies calling upon their endowments to invest in a liveable future. Faith leaders and people living on the front line of climate change will band together to urge their communities to divest from climate destruction. Individuals will close their accounts with banks and pension funds investing in climate chaos. Let’s make fossil fuels history!