Activism & Volunteering

The Campaign for Fossil Fues Divestment in the US: A rallying cry for a nation of frustrated students

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Throughout history divestment has been used to create social and political change. From companies who engaged in tobacco advertising to those who dealt with the South African government during apartheid, divestment has proved a useful tool in the campaigning toolbox. In the past year a student-led movement calling for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies has ‘exploded’ in America. Joseph of the group Divest Harvard tells us more…

At the start of the 2012 school year, the word divestment was largely unheard of, known only by those familiar with the 1980’s movement to divest from companies supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa. Now, just 8 months later, student-led campaigns at over 300 American colleges and universities have demanded that their institutions divest endowments from fossil fuel companies - and the nation has noticed. The movement has been abuzz ever since author Bill McKibben’s ‘Do The Math’ Tour in November 2012, where he spoke about the environmental “math” that adds up to the conclusion that we, as a society, must reject fossil fuel companies as respectable institutions by refusing to profit off of their wreckage to the planet. The movement was featured on the cover of the New York Times in December. So far, four schools, Hampshire College (MA), Sterling College (VT), Unity College (ME) and the College of the Atlantic (ME), have announced plans to divest their own endowments.

There are few other words that can describe the divestment movement’s rapid growth other than to say that it has “exploded”.

The explanation: this generation of college students has been raised in a society that has recycling bins in every classroom and laminated signs in every bathroom instructing people to turn off the lights. We are constantly bombarded with tips to reduce our carbon footprint, and being “green” is the new cool. Yet our society is so dependent on fossil fuels that it is almost foolish to suggest that such small changes are all we need to stop climate change. Of course we want to save energy, conserve paper and reduce waste, but it is clear that these small changes will not be enough to slash our carbon emissions enough to avoid inescapable warming, even though they are steps in the right direction.

Seeing that our own futures are at stake, today’s young adults feel more urgency than any other generation to correct our nation’s deplorable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing that we need to do more if we want to avoid dangerous sea level rises, our generation has been eager to find a way to bring large-scale change that can actually reduce our emissions. What better goal than to strip fossil fuel companies of their social license by divesting our money from their stocks?


Fossil fuel companies currently have a stranglehold on our lifestyle: they lobby against any anti-carbon legislation, and do everything in their power to hold onto their dominance. The United States has$502 billion in energy subsidies, more than any other country, which keeps fossil prices unreasonably low - so low that they do not reflect their true cost to our planet. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy, they will be the dominant source of energy. Because the government has been swayed by the authority of fossil fuel companies, we are unlikely to see much productive legislation to open up space for sustainable energy.

The divestment campaign targets that authority: by ignoring the fossil fuel industry with our money, we effectively remove their social influence. This movement is the perfect catalyst to galvanize an entire nation of college students who are aware of our climate crisis and desperately want to solve it but haven’t been able to identify a single, unifying cause to harness all of that energy. They have understood the urgency of the crisis, and have been frustrated to not have a clear way to solve it.

Critics argue that divestment will not affect fossil fuel companies in any way, and can only harm the universities’ endowments. While it is true that divestment will have a small effect on the industry, that is not the goal of the movement. The ultimate purpose of this tactic is to induce widespread social change, where the entire country (and world) realizes how harmful fossil fuels are to the planet, no matter how beneficial they are to the economy today.

Divestment will become more effective as more institutions divest; college endowments are just the beginning of the waterfall. In total, college endowments are worth some $400 billion, but after colleges lead the divestment charge, churches, cities, and all types of organizations and individuals will hopefully follow suit - which would indicate a widespread social change that devalues the credibility of fossil fuel companies. The city of Seattle has already announced that it will investigate ways to remove fossil fuel stocks from its pension fund. Similar to the civil rights movement, the climate crisis can be solved after that widespread social change.

Divestment is just the beginning of a sweeping realization that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rates.

As much as we’ve been taught about the greenhouse effect and global warming trends, real climate change seems like a far-off problem for most people in the developed world. At this point, we can no longer dispute the urgency of the crisis: the International Energy Association has determined that if governments do not act to reduce fossil fuel consumption, the planet could be locked into an irreversible pattern of warming by 2017. That is just four years from now - four years of college for the class of 2017. Those students can have an incredibly strong voice through the divestment campaign. Money talks, and it’s time that universities use their money to send the message that we cannot continue to support fossil fuels the way we do today.

Featured Image Credit: Tracy O via Compfight cc