Fossil Fuel Divestment and Climate Change Communication
Summary and Keywords
Divestment is a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices. It has historical roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The early-21st-century fossil fuel divestment movement began with climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” McKibben’s argument centers on three numbers. The first is 2°C, the international target for limiting global warming that was agreed upon at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2009 Copenhagen conference of parties (COP). The second is 565 Gigatons, the estimated upper limit of carbon dioxide that the world population can put into the atmosphere and reasonably expect to stay below 2°C. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons, which is the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves. That the amount of proven reserves is five times that which is allowable within the 2°C limit forms the basis for calls to divest.
The aggregation of individual divestment campaigns constitutes a movement with shared goals. Divestment can also function as “tactic” to indirectly apply pressure to targets of a movement, such as in the case of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has been gaining traction, first in the United States and United Kingdom, with student-led organizing focused on pressuring universities to divest endowment assets on moral grounds.
In partnership with 350.org, The Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Within its first year, the digital campaign garnered support from more than a quarter-million online petitioners and won a “campaign of the year” award in the Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. Since the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, “keep it in the ground” has become a dominant frame used by fossil fuel divestment activists.
Divestment campaigns seek to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. The rationale for divestment rests on the idea that fossil fuel companies are financially valued based on their resource reserves and will not be able to extract these reserves with a 2°C or lower climate target. Thus, their valuation will be reduced and the financial holdings become “stranded assets.” Critics of divestment have cited the costs and risks to institutional endowments that divestment would entail, arguing that to divest would go against their fiduciary responsibility. Critics have also argued that divesting from fossil fuel assets would have little or no impact on the industry. Some higher education institutions, including Princeton and Harvard, have objected to divestment as a politicization of their endowments. Divestment advocates have responded to this concern by pointing out that not divesting is not a politically neutral act—it is, in fact, choosing the side of fossil fuel corporations.
In 2012 Rolling Stone published an article by Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” In the seminal piece, McKibben (2012) argues that in order to understand the extent of the problem of global warming, readers need to “do a little math.” According to McKibben, climate action strategies focused on changing individual behaviors and lifestyles do not work, and there has been “limited success” working within the political system (2012). McKibben supports his argument with three key numbers: The first is two degrees Celsius (2°C), the international target that was agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen conference of parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The second is 565 Gigatons, the estimated upper limit of carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere and reasonably expect to stay below 2°C global warming. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons, which is the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves (McKibben, 2012).
The crux of the problem, in McKibben’s view, is that the amount of coal, natural gas, and oil that the world population is collectively on track to burn is five times higher than the upper limit to stay below two degrees Celsius of average global temperature warming (McKibben, 2012). A Carbon Tracker report on “unburnable” fossil fuel energy sources finds that in order to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial averages, the majority of proven reserves must not be burned: this forms the basis for McKibben’s argument in Rolling Stone (The Economist, 2013). The Carbon Tracker report (Leaton, 2011) introduced the “global carbon budget” to a wide audience. It is based on the premise that maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowable while still allowing a reasonable probability that overall warming can be held below the internationally agreed upon target of 2°C.
In 2010 cap-and-trade climate legislation died in the US Senate. After failing to get climate legislation through the US Congress, environmental activists were looking for new tactics—an “outside’ game” (Nisbet, 2015). This provided a political opening for grassroots, internet-mediated organizing, for which the climate organization 350.org is known, to step in and take the lead on climate advocacy (Nisbet, 2015). The group got its start in 2007 with a one-day set of grassroots organized, nationally coordinated actions to “Step It Up” on climate ahead of the 2008 US presidential elections, calling for an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions on the part of the United States by 2050 (Cox, 2010). The aim of 350.org is to mobilize those already alarmed about the issue (Nisbet, 2015). Hestres (2014) shows that 350.org works to support local grassroots organizing, while engaging in coordinated large-scale transnational actions. Hestres (2014) finds that by effective use of the internet and a focus on a specific issue, 350.org has been skilled at generating headlines and influencing public discourse. In fact, 350.org heavily promoted McKibben’s Rolling Stone article on social media, generating more than 170,000 online comments on the article and social media posts (Hestres, 2015), making the article at the time the most widely read in the magazine’s history.
With this compelling argument from McKibben, already well known for his environmental writings—including the first general audience book on global warming, published in 1989, The End of Nature—and co-founding 350.org, the fossil fuel divestment movement had its genesis. It was only following the 2012 publication of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article and the 350.org-organized Do the Math Tour, that fossil fuel divestment began to gain traction as an international cause among climate change activists, students, and others. It was at this point that more progressive actors within the climate movement had a new target: the fossil fuel industry. Then 350.org saw a political opportunity to target the fossil fuel industry for its moral responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions through applying pressure on institutions to divest endowments from the top 200 publicly traded coal, oil, and gas companies (see McAdam, 1982 on political opportunity structures). Divestment is as a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices (Alexander, Nicholson, & Wiseman, 2014).
The instantly viral synthesis by McKibben galvanized divestment as a tactic within the more progressive elements of the environmental movement at a time when climate activists where looking for new directions following the failure of cap-and-trade (see Nisbet, 2015). The fossil fuel divestment movement’s growth parallels a growing frustration on the part of climate justice activists tired of attempting to work within the current international system and pressuring individual nation-states to make meaningful policy changes on climate change (Pearse, 2015). Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has expanded beyond college campuses in the United States and United Kingdom to include 688 institutions, in 76 countries, and 58,399 individual investors, with commitments totally more than $5 trillion dollars (Arabella Advisors, 2016). During this time divestment has become a major focus of 350.org (Alexander et al., 2014, p. 5). According to activists, the divestment movement doubled in size in the year following the Paris Agreement at the close of 2015 (McChesney, 2017). The largest share of divestment commitments has been made by philanthropic foundations (23%) and faith-based organizations (23%), followed by local governments (17%), educational institutions (14%), and pension funds (12%) (Arabella Advisors, 2016).
This article considers the collection of individual divestment campaigns (e.g., Divest the Vatican, Divest Harvard) collectively as a movement with shared goals and objectives (see Fossil Free, n.d.b). Divestment conceptualized as a “movement” meets social movement scholar Mario Diani’s dimensions of: “conflictual collective action” targeting identified adversaries (the fossil fuel industry) and a dense network of informal linkages (e.g., 350.org’s Go Fossil Free network), sharing a collective identity centered on challenging the global neoliberal economic system (see Della Porta & Diani, 2006, pp. 20–22). In addition, divestment can function as a tactic to indirectly apply pressure to targets of a movement with distinct but related objectives. For example, calls by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters for banks to divest from the companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States have grown since President Donald Trump allowed the project to go ahead in January 2017 (Defund DAPL, n.d.; Devitt, 2016). #NoDAPL activists’ ultimate goal is to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. And in this case divestment is used as a tactic to apply indirect pressure to, and stigmatize, Energy Transfer Partners—the company behind the pipeline—by attempting to diminish financial backing for the project.
This article argues that the upsurge in fossil fuel divestment as both a tactic and a broader movement continues a “counter-hegemonic” climate justice tradition of pushing for systemic change that gained prominence following the failure of the 2009 COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen (Bullard & Müller, 2012, p. 54). It has filled the political void created by setbacks to neoliberal market-based climate solutions coming out of COP15 and the defeat of cap-and-trade in the United States. This article overviews scholarship on the origins of fossil fuel divestment, evaluating the motivations of activists for focusing on divestment in relation to other climate action tactics. It charts the fossil fuel divestment movement’s growth on college campuses in the United States and United Kingdom to The Guardian’s “Keep it in the Ground” campaign. In addition, this article analyzes the origins and tracks the rise of “keep it in the ground” messaging and the fossil fuel divestment movement’s communication strategies. It also addresses post-COP21 divestment actions, organized by the Break Free from Fossil Fuels coalition. Furthermore, this article reviews arguments in favor and against divestment as a climate action tactic, including: moral and financial motivations, stigmatization of the fossil fuel industry, scale of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, and nation-state policy frameworks versus a focus on industrial sectors.
The Origins of Fossil Fuel Divestment
Fossil fuel divestment has historical roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, as well as efforts to shun industry sectors based on harmful products, such as tobacco, private prisons, and firearms (Ansar, Caldecott, & Tilbury, 2013; Davidoff Solomon, 2015; MacAskill, 2015). The tactic has also been used in geopolitical disputes and human rights campaigns, targeting nation-states such as Sudan, Iran, Northern Ireland, and Israel (MacAskill, 2015). A report from Fossil Free Africa and 350 Africa draws parallels between the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s and the fossil fuel divestment movement, mentioning Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement who supports fossil fuel divestment (McKechnie & Ractliffe, 2015).
There are notable differences between anti-apartheid and fossil fuel divestment campaigns, mainly that the former aimed to abolish an unjust government and the latter targets a private industry, pushing for structural change (Hunt, Weber, & Dordi, 2017). In the case of apartheid South Africa, the tactic was one of “disinvestment” and the voluntary removal of assets by private companies from the country, rather than divestment (Ansar et al., 2013, p. 41). Although the anti-apartheid disinvestment campaign initially focused on persuading corporations and institutional investors to abandon South Africa as long as apartheid remained in place, it was soon embraced by college campus activists. By 1988, 155 institutions had committed to full or partial disinvestment from apartheid-era South Africa (Teoh, Welch, & Wazzan, 1999). By 1989, more than 90 cities, 26 US states, and 22 countries had somehow penalized companies operating in South Africa (Knight, 1990). As with the fossil fuel divestment movement, arguments about the moral imperative of disinvesting from apartheid-era South Africa were prominent during that campaign—particularly on college campuses (Altbach & Cohen, 1990). Drawing explicit parallels between apartheid and climate change, Archbishop Tutu has argued that thanks to the use of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, “[anti-apartheid activists] were not only able to apply economic pressure on the unjust state, but also serious moral pressure” (Tutu, 2014).
Divestment bridges structural change and individual agency (Alexander et al., 2014). Individuals can take action on climate by divesting personal investments from the fossil fuel industry while pressuring institutions to do so. According to Ansar et al. (2013), divestment is a “poorly understood phenomenon” (p. 19). They argue that divestment activists operate with an “erroneous model” of its impacts: that divestment leads to financial hardship, which in turn leads to a change in conduct (Ansar et al., 2013, p. 20). Comparing the fossil fuel divestment movement to past divestment campaigns, Ansar et al. (2013), identify several key attributes and stages. The movement has its origins in “religious groups and industry-related public organizations,” expands to public institutions such as universities and municipalities, and lastly, grows to include the general public and “wider market” (Ansar et al., 2013, p. 10). Divestment enables climate activists to target the fossil fuel industry directly. What is novel about the present-day fossil fuel divestment movement is its widespread impact and focus on “moral principles” over “economic self-interests” (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017, p. 2).
Though McKibben helped launch the contemporary movement with his 2012 Rolling Stone article, the conceptual roots of the “carbon budget” idea can be traced to the late 1980s and early 1990s (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017, p. 2; Caldecott, 2017). A 1989 book Energy Policy in the Greenhouse, by Florentin Krause, Wilfrid Bach, and Jon Koomey, developed the rationale for “unburnable carbon” (Caldecott, 2017, p. 4). They theorized that the limited nature of “allowable global carbon emissions” implied that the investments in fossil fuel infrastructure “risk early obsolescence” (Krause, Bach, & Koomey, 1989, p. 164, as cited in Caldecott, 2017). They go on to say that “in effect, the tight carbon budgets implied by climate stabilization greatly reduce the long-term value of fossil fuels,” (Krause, Bach, & Koomey, 1989, p. 164, as cited in Caldecott, 2017). Caldecott (2017) concludes that these ideas, which were innovative for the late 1980s, were largely overlooked for several decades because of the lack of political will behind limiting greenhouse gas emissions during this period.
Early on, Greenpeace International made the preliminary connection of associating climate change with investor risk (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017; Paterson, 2001). As far back as the early 1990s, insurers were starting to express concerns over payouts resulting from extreme weather events, particularly floods and hurricanes (Paterson, 2001). In 1993 Greenpeace International published a report, “Climate Change and the Insurance Industry,” focused on insurance losses in the event of extreme weather events globally between 1987 and early 1993. The report argues “the insurance industry has started to wake up to the threat climate change poses to its profitability” (Leggett, 1993, p. 3). In the report, Leggett (1993) lays out three potential courses of action: (1) maintain the status quo (i.e., the fossil fuel industry); (2) “passive adaption” through a “dramatic overhaul” in industry business practices (p. 4); and (3) “active strategic protection of the market” through lobbying governments and industry directly in favor of cuts to greenhouse gas emissions (p. 4).
Strikingly similar to the “Keep it in the Ground” rhetoric and climate science research supporting the notion of “unburnable” fuels that would emerge some two decades later (see Leaton, 2011; McGlade & Ekins, 2015), Leggett (1993) notes that burning an estimated 3% of global fossil fuel reserves “may well make global ecological catastrophe almost certain” (p. 12). He further discusses the discrepancy between the amounts of estimated fossil fuel reserves as compared to greenhouse gas emissions potential from burning these reserves, labeling it the “arithmetic of unsustainability” (p. 12). This report was published the year following, and makes direct reference to, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that resulted in the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Leggett, 1993).
The US-based legacy environmental organization the Sierra Club was on the forefront of targeting the fossil fuel industry with its “Beyond Coal” campaign. The campaign, which got its start in 2009 (Sheppard, 2015), was a precursor to the fossil fuel divestment movement. At that time the climate justice movement was increasingly targeting extractive industries and large-scale infrastructure projects, including coal-fired power plants (Bullard & Müller, 2012). With the objective of leaving coal deposits in the ground, the “Beyond Coal” campaign foreshadowed “Keep it in the Ground” campaigning of 2015 and after by The Guardian, Greenpeace USA, and 350.org (350.org, n.d.a; Greenpeace USA, n.d.; The Guardian, 2015). On an international scale, coal-fired power plants are a leading source of carbon dioxide emissions (Cox, 2010). The original goal of “Beyond Coal” campaigners was to close a third of coal-fired power plants, later raised in 2015 to an objective of closing half of all such plants in the United States by 2017 (Sheppard, 2015). In addition to “retiring” coal-fired power plants, the “Beyond Coal” campaign goals include stopping construction of new coal-fired power plants around the country and keeping coal “underground and out of international markets” (Sierra Club, 2012, p. 1).
The “Beyond Coal” campaign focus is on mobilizing and working with local community activists against specific sites to “replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built” (Sierra Club, n.d.a). For example, sustained pressure from environmental justice activists for more than a decade in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods—both home to majority Latino or Hispanic populations—resulted in the closure of two coal-fired power plants sited in the neighborhoods (Lydersen, 2010; Pilsen Alliance, 2012; Wernau, 2012). In the Chicago anti-coal-fired power plants campaign’s later stages, legacy environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club—along with Greenpeace, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Rainforest Action Network—got involved as part of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition (Lydersen, 2010; Pilsen Alliance, 2012). The legacy environmental groups made the coal-fired power plants in Chicago “symbols in their nationwide anti-coal campaigns” (Lydersen, 2010), claiming credit, along with local groups, for the decommissioning of the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants in Chicago as a major campaign victory in 2012 (Sierra Club, 2012, p. 4).
Organizers of the “Beyond Coal” campaign sought to change the paradigm of what is considered possible on energy system transformation, as senior “Beyond Coal” campaign director Bruce Nilles told The Huffington Post in 2015 (Sheppard, 2015). In the United States, in part due to pressure from environmental justice activists as well as factors such as tightening environmental rules, unconventional sources of shale natural gas shifting industry economics, and increased availability of renewable energy, over 200 coal power plants have either closed or are slated for closure since 2010 (Lydersen, 2016). The Sierra Club claimed victory for closing 236 coal-fired plants around the United States as of June 2016 (Sierra Club, n.d.b).
As an antecedent to fossil fuel divestment as a climate movement tactic, by targeting large-scale fossil fuel projects as in the case of the “Beyond Coal” campaign, environmental activists sought to increase the perceived risk to such projects for investors, thus making them less attractive financial investments (Cox, 2010). In analyzing the “Beyond Coal” campaign, Cox (2010) reexamines the “discursive construction of climate change” in political action (p. 8). He concludes that the campaign “appears to have achieved an alignment between its communicative efforts and the potential of these to influence subsequent events” (Cox, 2010, p. 124).
Adopted on US college campuses, “Beyond Coal” campaigning expanded with student activists targeting universities’ endowments for divestment from coal companies. Student activists spearheaded anti-coal campaigns at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, as part of student wing of Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign (Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016, p. 664). Divestment campaigning inclusive of all fossil fuels got its start as an outgrowth of this anti-coal student activism, with the first campaign at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2011 (Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016).
Student Divestment Activism in the United States and United Kingdom
Similar to the use of divestment as a direct pressure tactic in the anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s, university students have been on the forefront of fossil fuel divestment, with activism on college campuses having been the vanguard of the movement (Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016). Campus divestment campaigns filled a “vacuum” in the US climate movement following the failure of cap-and-trade climate legislation in the Senate (Dorsey & Mott, 2014). This shift to focus on the fossil fuel industry came at a low point for climate action on an international scale, following the 2009 climate change talks in Copenhagen, widely viewed as a failure, as well as the inability to get climate legislation through the US Senate (Dorsey & Mott, 2014). In June 2011, US activists held a national gathering of student organizers and launched university-based “Divest Coal” campaigns that August. The campaigns later broadened to calls for investment in clean energy technologies (Dorsey & Mott, 2014). By the spring of 2012, there were an estimated 50 university and college-based divestment campaigns underway in the United States (Dorsey & Mott, 2014).
Student activists draw on themes of climate justice and the moral responsibility of universities to serve the public good in their fossil fuel divestment campaigning. As an embodiment of Enlightenment principles universities are sensitive to “reputation risk” from association with the fossil fuel industry and the perception of a “misalignment” between a higher education institution’s teaching, research, and public service missions with its investments (Cleveland & Reibstein, 2015, p. 13). According to Grady-Benson and Sarathy (2016), on college campuses there has been a “sea change” shift from a focus on individual behavior to one on “youth-led collective political action” and situating “climate change as a social justice issue” (p. 661). Student campaigners have not confined their organizing to fossil fuel divestment (see Coronel et al., 2016). Rather, they are actively working to include climate justice core values and at the same time as calling for their universities to divest from fossil fuels, promoting “reinvestment” in communities for a “just transition” away from fossil fuel-based economies (Coronel et al., 2016, p. 3). Grady-Benson and Sarathy (2016) write that “convergence events” brought together student organizers on a national level and the work of the Divestment Student Network to focus on environmental justice aspects of climate change.
Activists use this idea of “just transition” to target capitalist structures of resource extraction and advocate for systems change. The Divestment Student Network is part of a Reinvest in Our Power “community reinvestment” project, started in 2014 through a series of national gatherings and coordinated by the Climate Justice Alliance (Coronel et al., 2016, pp. 9–10; Our Power Campaign, n.d.). A “Reinvestment Toolkit” authored by organizers from the Divestment Student Network makes a connection between environmental and social injustices with extractive industries, saying that “the climate and economic crises are rooted in the ideology of extraction, are fundamentally intertwined and must be solved together” (Coronel et al., 2016, p. 3). The Divestment Student Network toolkit outlines efforts to bring campus-based organizers together with community efforts, as well as objectives to promote this “just transition” through reinvestment in local communities with cooperative financial institutions and lending, transforming political institutions to be more democratic, and building a broad-based network (Coronel et al., 2016, p. 3).
The narrative shift toward climate justice is rooted in “calls for systemic social and economic change” (Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016, p. 666). Bratman, Brunette, Shelly, and Nicholson (2016) argue that fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses are a reflection of “re-politicized” sustainability politics that draws directly on the “climate justice framework” (p. 1). They find three aspects to university-based fossil fuel divestment campaigns, using American University in Washington, DC as a case study: first, a climate justice orientation and approach to addressing climate change; second, an underlying “radical understanding” of environmental activism; and lastly, an “inside-outside strategy” to apply political pressure to the university (Bratman et al., 2016, p. 2).
Student activism for fossil fuel divestment spread to the United Kingdom in 2013 with the publication of Knowledge and Power: Fossil Fuel Universities. The report was prepared for the activist organizations Platform, People & Planet, and 350.org. It details financial linkages between UK higher education institutions and the fossil fuel industry (Lander, 2013). Similar to the themes of US student campaigning, it makes the case for targeting universities as public institutions with a moral responsibility to train students for ethical careers (Lander, 2013). It recommends student activists ask universities to disclose their connections to the oil and gas industry, call on pension fund managers to divest, suspend new fossil fuel industry sponsorships, and end basic research that supports the industry (Lander, 2013). University activists in the UK self-define the combined efforts of campaigns for fossil fuel divestment at their respective campuses as a movement toward going fossil fuel free and toward investment in clean energy innovation (People & Planet, 2017a, 2017b). The University of Glasgow became the first university in the UK, and the first in Europe, to divest in 2014 (Fossil Free UK, 2014; University of Glasgow, 2014).
Sharing the goal of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels with their US counterparts, as a broader movement for the “reinvestment” of institutional and societal resources in a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, campus activists in the UK seek to resist, reclaim, and restructure global energy systems (People & Planet, 2017a, p. 32). A guide from the UK charity People & Planet suggests student activists start developing a campaign on their campus by researching their institution and “power mapping” institutional decision makers to target (e.g., finance manager, vice chancellor, and environment manager) (People & Planet, 2017a, p. 16). People & Planet advises campus activists to request a meeting with their institution’s finance committee and to make their case “in a respectful and professional way, building and making a serious case for why they should divest or drop a particular sponsor,” (People & Planet, 2017a, p. 25). Following the Paris COP21 climate talks in 2015, UK student activists agreed to target the banking sector, specifically Barclays and HSBC, for financing the fossil fuel industry (People & Planet, 2017a, p. 33).
As of the end of 2016, 40 universities and colleges in the United States had made full or partial divestment commitments, including Boston University (coal and tar sands), the University of Maryland, Stanford University (coal), and Yale University (partial), as well as the University of Massachusetts state university system foundation (Fossil Free, n.d.a; Healy & Debski, 2016). As of November 2016, more than a quarter of UK universities had made partial or full divestment commitments (Lamb, 2016). Several leading UK institutions have made commitments to divest from coal and tar sands, including: University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, King’s College London, the University of Edinburgh, and the London School of Economics (People & Planet, 2017b).
In cases where universities have proven resistant to calls for full divestment, such as Harvard University, activists have narrowed their divestment ask to coal companies and employed direct action tactics (see Divest Harvard, 2017). In April 2017, a Harvard Management Company official, Managing Director of Natural Resources Colin Butterfield, stated at a Business School event that the portfolio he led was “pausing” investment in fossil fuels (Dixon, 2017a, 2017b). While Divest Harvard activists celebrated this as a “step toward divestment,” a university spokesperson clarified that the university’s investment policy has not changed (Divest Harvard, 2017; Dixon, 2017a). In some cases, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), student divestment campaigns have used the direct action tactics of blockades and sit-ins to escalate their divestment demands (Dixon, 2017b; Krantz, 2016a, 2016b). Students at MIT staged what is believed to be the longest running university fossil fuel divestment sit-in, totaling 116 days, outside of the university president’s office from October 2015 to March 2016 (Krantz, 2016a). Fossil Free MIT called on the university to create a more “ambitious MIT Climate Action Plan,” end investment in coal and tar sands, start an Ethics Advisory Committee to address climate science disinformation, and commit to going carbon neutral by 2040 (Fossil Free MIT, 2015). Following the MIT sit-in, the university agreed to “aspire” to go carbon neutral as soon as feasible and committed to establishing an advisory committee to provide input on institutional relationships with fossil fuel companies (Krantz, 2016b).
Student fossil fuel divestment campaigns symbolically challenge the status quo of higher education institutions, seeking to reorient societal norms and internalize externalities of the global energy system into institutional investment decisions (see Turner & Killian, 1987 on the emergence of new norms). This article will now overview arguments in favor and against fossil fuel divestment.
The Arguments for Fossil Fuel Divestment
As the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown from its early origins with Greenpeace during the 1990s to a worldwide popular cause in the 21st century, it has developed a series of compelling arguments on behalf of its goals and aims. In return, opponents and critics of the movement have also articulated their own concerns and counter-arguments, many of them equally compelling to institutional leaders, investors, journalists, and others.
Fossil fuel divestment activists focus their arguments on moral and financial considerations (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017; Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016; McKechnie & Ractliffe, 2015). Similar to Greenpeace International’s “arithmetic of unsustainability” (Leggett, 1993, p. 12), in his seminal Rolling Stone piece McKibben laid out the conceptual framework for a moral case against the fossil fuel industry (Nisbet, 2015). McKibben (2012) argues for a radical transformation in the energy sector, “At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.” The core of McKibben’s argument is the “carbon budget” idea that the amount of coal, natural gas, and oil that the world population collectively is on track to burn is five times higher than the upper limit to stay below two degrees Celsius of average global temperature warming (McKibben, 2012).
Fossil fuel divestment activists target institutional investors and, indirectly, fossil fuel companies. The Go Fossil Free campaign aims to build political power by calling on institutions to “choose which side of the issue they are on,” (Fossil Free, n.d.b). They aim to get institutions to:
[I]mmediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years.
(Fossil Free, n.d.b)
They target the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Through pressuring institutional investors to divest, they indirectly take aim at the fossil fuel industry. The movement’s demands on industry are to end exploration for new resources, stop lobbying activities, and commit to keeping 80% of current known reserves in the ground (Fossil Free, n.d.b).
In terms of moral arguments in favor of fossil fuel divestment, a common goal of divestment campaigns is to stigmatize an industry or sector by portraying its holdings as “stranded assets” (Ansar et al., 2013). The Generation Foundation (2013) identifies three major potential risks to fossil fuel assets: regulation, market forces, and public opposition. Caldecott, Howarth, and McSharry (2013) offer a “meta” definition of stranded assets as those that “have suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluations, or conversion to liabilities” (p. 7). While climate activists adopted the term “stranded assets” in the 2010s as part of the effort to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry, the concept has its origins in early and mid-20th-century economic development literature (Caldecott, 2017). According to Caldecott (2017), the roots of the concept date to “long waves” in the economic cycle (Kondratiev, 1926) and “creative destruction” processes as integral to capitalism (Schumpeter, 1942).
Thus, the rationale for divestment is based on the premise that fossil fuel companies are financially valued based on their resource reserves and therefore must be able to develop and tap into those reserves in the future (The Economist, 2013). The Carbon Tracker report, which forms much of the basis for McKibben (2012), is based on research by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which concluded that “to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000–2050 is 886 GtCO2. Minus emissions from the first decade of this century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtCO2 for the remaining 40 years to 2050” (Leaton, 2011, p. 2). This math has been supported by other work. In an influential research letter published in Nature, McGlade and Ekins (2015) use a “single integrated assessment model” to look at a breakdown by world region, countries, and resource type (e.g., coal, natural gas, oil) of how much fossil fuel can be burned within a 2°C carbon budget (p. 187). McGlade and Ekins (2015) use the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s carbon budget of about 870–1,240 Gt CO2 (Gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions), from 2011 to 2050 as a metric, finding that 82% of global coal reserves, along with half of natural gas and one-third of oil reserves, need to remain in the ground.
McGlade and Ekins conclude that the debate over scarcity of fossil fuels is no longer relevant because these reserves “should not be produced” to keep with the international agreement to attempt to keep global warming to 2°C (2015, p. 190). They write “these results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuels availability is necessary” (McGlade & Ekins, 2015, p. 190). Furthermore, they conclude that nation-states’ objective to extract their reserves as quickly as possible is “in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments” to limit global warming to 2°C” (McGlade & Ekins, 2015, p. 187). The study was one of the most significant of 2015, topping Carbon Brief’s list of “most featured in the media” climate research of the year (McSweeney, 2016) and ranking seventh in Altmetric’s top 100 list (Becker, 2015).
A report from Fossil Free Africa and Africa 350.org argues for the need to take a longer-term view of fiduciary duty and for systemic change to stop subsidies to the fossil fuel industry (McKechnie & Ractliffe, 2015, pp. 14–15). By framing divestment as a moral issue, one of the movement’s goals is to influence the public debate and discourse, “leveraging economic pressure” on corporate actors and institutions in the context of political inaction, real or perceived (McKechnie & Ractliffe, 2015; Powell, 2014). According to Ayling and Gunningham (2017), the objective of fossil fuel divestment campaigns is to “shame, pressure, facilitate, and encourage investors,”—both institutions and individuals—to not only divest from fossil fuels but also reinvent in “climate-friendly” or “climate-neutral” sectors (p. 2). Alexander et al. (2014), note that fossil fuel divestment campaigns are not simply oppositional but can also embrace strategies “to promote and support the reinvestment of funds in alternative, more ‘climate friendly’ industries such as renewable energy and energy efficiency” (p. 3). The Fossil Free Africa and Africa 350.org report recommends a long-term focus, upsetting the status quo and promoting fiscal responsibility, as well as the need to “develop clear and comprehensive messaging” tailored to specific audiences, and an emphasis on “common goals” (McKechnie & Ractliffe, 2015, p. 21).
In light of the moral and financial arguments in favor of divestment, a focus on the moral dimensions has been a critical component to successful fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Based on participatory observation, interviews and a survey, Grady-Benson and Sarathy (2016) find that in the case of successful divestment campaigns, much of the rationale to decide in favor of divestment is based on moral arguments, specifically that divestment aligns with an institution’s values. They find that “having explicitly stated institutional values of social justice and environmental sustainability were critical in FFD [fossil fuel divestment] campaigns gaining traction in the first place” (Grady-Benson & Sarathy, 2016, p. 13). In a study of US universities and colleges press releases on divestment, Healy and Debski (2016) find that alignment with institutional values and a commitment to social justice were key factors in a university’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. Early adopters of divestment were institutions with relatively small endowments: Hampshire College in Massachusetts (2011) and Unity College in Maine (2012) (Healy & Debski, 2016). Healy and Debski (2016) find that the most important stated reason for divesting among US higher education institutions is “alignment with values,” followed by a goal of taking leadership on environmental issues and the “moral imperative to act” on climate issues (p. 9). For example, four years after initially divesting Unity College, an environmental college, touts itself as the “standard bearer for a national movement” redirecting financial assets toward “intentional investing” (Unity College, 2016).
Anti-Fossil Fuel Divestment Arguments
Divestment has attracted criticism from across the ideological spectrum. Given the highly polarized nature of the climate debate in the United States (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), it is perhaps no surprise that the claims, tactics, and motives of divestment advocates have come under fire from ideological conservatives. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has criticized the divestment movement harshly for its strong focus on US college campuses. The NAS is a conservative organization that describes itself as a “network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education” and features several prominent conservative intellectuals on its advisory boards (National Association of Scholars, n.d.b, n.d.c). It has accused divestment advocates of misrepresenting the impact that divestment would have on climate change; the movement’s successes to date; its claims of grassroots, student-led activism; and the intellectual integrity of the entire enterprise (National Association of Scholars, n.d.a). A report from the NAS titled Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement To Turn A Generation Against Fossil Fuels, characterized the movement as “an attack on freedom of inquiry and responsible social advocacy in American higher education” (National Association of Scholars, 2015, p. 10).
The movement has also come under fire from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) has set up a website, divestmentfacts.com, which chronicles the movement’s failures to get institutions to divest, spotlights quotes from prominent academics and nonprofit sector individuals who have opposed divestment, and features reports detailing how much various institutions stand to lose by divesting. The thrust of IPAA’s arguments against divestment is the financial cost that institutions such as universities and foundations could incur by embracing divestment. For example, one of the reports commissioned by IPAA argues that divestment would cost Harvard, Yale, MIT, Columbia, and New York University (NYU) a combined $195 million (Cornell, 2015). Another report commissioned by IPAA alleges that there are significant costs for endowments to execute the transactions related to divestment and to remain fossil fuel free after the fact (Bessembinder, 2016).
Other critics worry about divestment’s effectiveness vis-à-vis other avenues for achieving meaningful progress on climate policy. Nisbet (2015) argues that the focus on fossil fuel divestment, along with the Keystone XL pipeline, distracts from other mechanisms to address climate such as stricter limits on the emissions of coal-fired power plants and energy efficiency rules. He also finds that the focus on reaching progressives has resulted in heightening political polarization on climate issues. Nisbet (2015) does not oppose divestment in all cases but thinks that it is better suited for some institutions (e.g., small liberal arts colleges) while not others (e.g., large research institutions) that could make more meaningful contributions to climate mitigation by partnering with fossil fuel industries in research ventures. In a similar vein, climate change professor Mike Hulme (2015) has described divestment (in The Guardian, of all places) as “gesture politics” and “deeply reductionist.” Hulme argues that addressing climate change cannot be reduced to one campaign tactic, or to a good versus evil dichotomy between activists and fossil fuel corporations, or even to holding global temperatures below a certain number. Divestment, argues Hulme, focuses attention on energy companies instead of meeting the needs of people, which is where attention rightly belongs in his opinion.
Other critics of divestment have asserted that it will not have the desired effect on fossil fuel corporations. Christine Wood, a Vassar College trustee with vast investment experience, argues that “trying to use an investment portfolio to accomplish social or political causes comes up short in every way you can imagine” (Domonell, 2013). Selling shares of fossil fuel companies, she argues, only transfers ownership of those shares to some other party who cares much less about the issue than the original seller does. Timothy Devinney, University Leadership Chair in International Business and Pro Dean of Research and Innovation at the University of Leeds, argues in The Conversation that divestment also deprives the seller of any voice within the company to change its practices in the future—a development that may do more harm than good given the importance of ownership in corporate debates (Devinney, 2015). Finally, contrary to what some divestment campaigners seem to believe, selling shares of fossil fuel companies does not deprive them of their ability to invest, nor does it raise the cost of capital and debt (Devinney, 2015).
Opponents of divestment within institutions targeted by activists have used similar arguments in deciding against divestment. When MIT turned down demands by student activists to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel investments, it cited its belief that the best way to accelerate action on tackling climate change was to engage with many different institutions, “from the most disruptive solar startups to fossil fuel giants that have mastered the challenges of delivering energy to millions of households” (Reif et al., 2015).
In addition to the MIT example, colleges and universities in the United States have stated many different reasons for rejecting divestment—some related to climate change, others not. Healy and Debski (2016) analyzed public statements from colleges and universities that had declined to divest. Seventy-eight percent of schools cited the costs and/or risks to their endowments that divestment would carry, and 26 schools specifically mentioned “fiduciary responsibility” in their communications (Healy & Debski, 2016, p. 10). Sixty-five percent of schools argued that divesting from fossil fuel assets would have little or no impact on those industries. This particular finding suggests divestment advocates have not made as persuasive a case as they could in terms of the concrete impact divestment would have beyond its symbolic and moral meaning. Some schools, such as Princeton and Harvard, have objected to divestment as a politicization of their respective endowments. Divestment advocates have responded to this concern by pointing out that not divesting is not a politically neutral act—it is, in fact, choosing the side of fossil fuel corporations (Healy & Debski, 2016).
Taken together, these arguments by divestment critics portray it as a tactic that is at best impractical and at worst harmful to the pursuit of climate solutions. Critics allege that divestment will accomplish none of its stated goals, such as weakening fossil fuel industries financially, while hurting institutions such as colleges, universities, and charitable foundations that do much social good. They also paint divestment as a tactic that may hold some symbolic value but is ultimately a distraction from other measures that could have a more tangible impact on the climate crisis.
The Responsibilities of the Fossil Fuel Industry
The fossil fuel divestment movement has taken up the mantle of pushing for accountability on the part of coal, oil, and natural gas producers, acting as “challengers” to dominant political actors (Tilly, 1978, p. 53). The difference between adhering to a “global carbon budget” and extracting known and future fossil fuel reserves presents a “tragedy of the commons” problem (Hardin, 1968), with firms that are valued by investors and in world financial markets based on their reserves independently of the overall scale of climate change as a global problem. It is in the self-interest of each of these fossil fuel companies to burn their reserves in order to turn a profit, but their activities contribute to global warming beyond what the planet can sustain. To explore the moral responsibility for climate change on the part of the fossil fuel industry, Frumhoff, Heede, and Oreskes (2015) look specifically at investor-owned fossil-fuel producers, as opposed to nation-state controlled resource extraction. They suggest that “[m]ajor investor-owned fossil energy companies carry significant responsibility for climate change” (Frumhoff et al., 2015, p. 157). Other corporate sectors that have been shamed into accepting moral responsibility for the externalities their industries cause include tobacco, asbestos, and lead (Frumhoff et al., 2015).
In a study published in Global Environmental Change, Heede and Oreskes (2016) argue that climate action requires attention not only to the private sector, investor-owned fossil fuel companies but also to state-owned ones and governments. They examine differences between private and “state-owned” fossil fuel companies, including 70 investor-owned companies and eight state-run entities, noting that the majority of global oil and gas reserves are controlled by nation-states (Heede & Oreskes, 2016). They conclude that, “[B]ecause of the large proportion of reserves in the hands of state-owned entities, DAI [dangerous anthropogenic interference] cannot be prevented by focusing on private sector activity alone,” (Heede & Oreskes, 2016, p. 17). They find that nation-states limiting extraction of their proven reserves is necessary to limit GHG emissions (Heede & Oreskes, 2016). In terms of investor-owned fossil fuel companies, Heede and Oreskes (2016) argue that the key problem is ongoing and future exploration to find new fossil fuel reserves. Investor-owned fossil fuel companies’ proven reserves are expected to be used by 2030, if not sooner (Heede & Oreskes, 2016). They conclude: “Given this, we suggest that investor and consumer pressure should focus on the question of phasing out exploration for new resources, especially in high-cost environments and of carbon-intensive resources” (Heede & Oreskes, 2016, p. 19).
The shift within the energy industry away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy technologies can be understood through the “techno-economic paradigm” proposed by Perez (2002, 2010). Taking a neo-Schumpeterian perspective, she argues that cycles of “technological revolution” are integral to the nature of capitalism (Perez, 2002, pp. 4–5). She defines such revolutions as “clusters of interrelated technology systems” that disrupt the global economy, beyond the sectors in which they originate (Perez, 2010, p. 200). Within this context of disruptive innovation, Frumhoff and colleagues outline three major ways in which fossil-fuel companies could act: (1) Communicate climate risks of “continued use of their products” and the necessity to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius; (2) forsake claim-making by industry trade groups and actively work to counter such climate dismissive messaging; and (3) “accelerate their transition to the production of low-carbon energy” (Frumhoff et al., 2015, p. 157). Moreover, in Nature Energy, Sovacool, Heffron, McCauley, and Goldthau (2016) argue for considering the ethical dimensions of energy systems to overcome a “moral vacuum.” They propose using an “energy justice” framework in order to account for sustainability, transparency, and equity in energy production and consumption (Sovacool et al., 2016).
This article will now overview more recent developments in the global push for fossil fuel divestment from 2015 onward. By this time, the movement had expanded beyond the higher education sector. Fossil fuel divestment has grown internationally, with notable wins for the movement with divestment by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the College of the Marshall Islands, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund (partial), the World Council of Churches, and the cities of Berlin, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm, and Sydney (Fossil Free, 2017).
The Guardian and the Paris Agreement Moment
In March 2015, in partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, The Guardian newspaper launched a “Keep it in the Ground” campaign at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (Rusbridger, 2015a). The Guardian has two-thirds of its readership outside of the United Kingdom and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014 for its coverage of the Edward Snowden US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance leak (Rusbridger, 2015c). The Guardian partnered with the climate advocacy organization 350.org and its Go Fossil Free campaign to pressure the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest financial assets from oil, coal, and natural gas companies within the next five years (The Guardian, 2015; Rusbridger, 2015b). Rusbridger decided to take a personal stand on climate change after having met climate activist Bill McKibben while both were in Stockholm to receive Right Livelihood Awards (Abbruzzese, 2015).
Within its first year, the digital campaign garnered support from more than a quarter-million online petitioners and won “campaign of the year” in the Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards (Howard & Carrington, 2015; Press Gazette, 2015). At the 2015 British Journalism Awards, the judges commented, “This was an epic piece of journalism conducted on an international scale and on a difficult subject. The Keep it in the Ground climate change campaign was hugely ambitious, reverberated around the world and had tangible results” (Press Gazette, 2015).
Targeting an audience of scientists, Rusbridger (2015c) asserts that climate is “the most important news on Earth” but covering the topic is hard for journalists who are used to event-driven, episodic reporting. A goal of the campaign was to “energize and inspire people in a way that simple reporting sometimes does not” (Rusbridger, 2015c). The first phase of the campaign focused on “finding new ways to fight climate change,” as well as the “threat of the fossil fuel industry” (Howard & Carrington, 2015). According to an explanatory article in the publication, “We invested in journalism to tell the story of the fossil fuel industry, including investigations into corporations and a series of pieces exposing the gigantic fossil fuel reserves around the world” (Howard & Carrington, 2015).
In October 2015, The Guardian shifted the focus of the campaign to center on hope, in reaction to readers’ responses to the original campaign and ahead of the COP21 Paris climate talks at the end of that year (Howard & Carrington, 2015; Randerson, 2015b). In a message to campaign supporters on October 5, 2015, assistant national news editor James Randerson wrote:
You—the supporters of this campaign—have been its backbone since the beginning. So we asked you where to take it next and your responses can be summarised in one word: hope.
We aren’t abandoning fossil fuel divestment but we will now focus on solar power: the alternatives, the positive stories and its amazing growth and potential.
With the second phase of the Keep it in the Ground campaign, The Guardian shifted its emphasis from divestment to investment in clean energy technologies within the context of the Paris climate talks, which took place between November 30 and December 12, 2015 (Randerson, 2015b). The goal was to develop a “positive narrative” and show that it is possible to make the transition to a low-carbon energy system (Howard & Carrington, 2015). As Randerson (2015b) wrote to readers, “A major strand of our climate coverage up to Paris and beyond will be about climate change as story of hope.” In phase two of the campaign, the publication focused coverage on transforming the global energy system and, in particular, on advancements in solar energy technology.
Despite heightened attention generated by the Keep it in the Ground campaign and pressure from fossil fuel divestment activists, the Wellcome Trust—a British charity focused on funding health and medical research—declined to divest from fossil fuels, increasing its investments in coal, oil and gas, according to an analysis by The Guardian (Carrington, 2015b). Upon the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, the Wellcome Trust released a statement, saying:
Environmental change, including climate change, is one of the greatest contemporary challenges facing our society, and we have made understanding the connections between environment, nutrition and health one of our five key research challenges. This is a highly complex issue which we take seriously in our decisions and on which we engage with policy-makers, researchers and the businesses in which we invest.
(Wellcome Trust, 2015)
The Gates Foundation, for its part, sold its stock in the oil company BP, valued at $137 million, in late 2015, following its sale of ExxonMobil stock earlier that year (Berke, 2016; Carrington, 2016).
A Keep it in the Ground Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives in February 2016—following a similar bill introduced in the US Senate in November 2015—which, if passed, would have banned fossil fuel extraction on federal lands in the United States (Page, 2016; Valentine, 2015). In addition, Bill McKibben, acting as a representative for defeated presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), introduced several Keep it in the Ground–type planks before the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee that were ultimately rejected (McCauley, 2016).
In the lead up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, divestment from fossil fuels gained the support of high-profile individuals, including: former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as the organizational support of the UNFCCC (Carrington, 2015a). In a Twitter post featuring South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the UNFCCC expressed support for fossil fuel divestment (UN Climate Action, 2015). A 2015 Global Divestment Day in the lead up to the Paris climate talks that year included 450 events and actions in 60 countries (Fossil Free, 2015). A divestment and reinvestment message was central to Global Climate March messaging in the days prior to COP21, with a call from 350.org to “[k]eep fossil fuels in the ground and finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050” (350.org, 2015c). In the two days leading up to the start of the official COP21 summit on November 30, 2015, activists held more than 2,300 events in over 175 countries in a Global Climate March (350.org, 2015c). While there was a push by activists to promote fossil fuel divestment during COP21, in the first week of the climate talks less than 1 percent of the total social media posting volume was devoted to the topic (Hopke, 2015). Still, the most highly retweeted divestment activist post of the first week of COP21 was 350.org’s announcement that fossil fuel divestment commitments had reached more than US$3.4 trillion (Hopke, 2015; 350.org, 2015a).
Similar to earlier international climate negotiations, during COP21 climate activists calling for divestment opened discursive opportunities for critique of the neoliberal economic system and for imagining a different energy future (see Bullard & Müller, 2012). As NGO messaging indicates, the fossil fuel divestment movement brings together internet-mediated activism on climate with translocal advocacy around energy-related topics, such as hydraulic fracturing (see Hopke, 2016). During the 2015 COP21 Paris climate talks, fossil fuel divestment activists, led by 350.org, held a press conference to announce a series of transnationally organized nonviolent direct actions against the fossil fuel industry for May 2016, called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” (350.org, 2015b). The events were billed as a “series of escalated actions” in order to “accelerate the global energy transformation away from fossil fuels: underlining how governments are not acting fast enough as key outcomes from the negotiations remain up in the air” (350.org, 2015b). A second round of “Break Free” actions took place in 2017, calling for a
[j]ust transition to a renewable future built on democratic freedoms and human rights. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to break free from the grip of fossil fuel corporations and keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.
(Break Free, 2017)
In 2016, “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” actions took place in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Indonesia, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom (350.org, 2015b).
In addition to the “Break Free” actions, 350.org planned a Global Divestment Mobilisation for May 2017 to highlight the moral responsibility of the fossil fuel industry for climate change, with the goal of further stigmatizing it (350.org, 2017a). In a recruitment video, which opens with a clip of US President Donald Trump questioning climate science, 350.org calls for individuals around the world to “demand moral leadership” (350.org, 2017b). The video defines divestment as, “the breaking of ties with an immoral industry” (350.org, 2017b). Actions were planned for Australia, Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Climate justice activists had used messaging about “leaving fossil fuels in the ground” haphazardly before The Guardian’s uptake of the frame, such as during the 2007 COP13 in Bali, Indonesia (Climate Justice Now!, 2007). However, since the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, “Keep it in the Ground” has become a major frame used by fossil fuel divestment activists. Comparing search term volume for “fossil fuel divestment” with “keep it in the ground,” using Google Trends, shows that search volume for “keep it in the ground” spiked between February and April 2015 in the period following the launch of The Guardian’s digital campaign (Google Trends, 2016). Legacy environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth UK, Greenpeace USA, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), and the Sierra Club, along with internet-mediated climate specialist organizations, such as 350.org, have taken up “Keep it in the Ground” as an umbrella organizing message (350.org, n.d.a; Friends of the Earth UK, n.d., Greenpeace USA, n.d.; The Guardian, 2015; Rainforest Action Network, n.d., Sierra Club, n.d.c). Groups such as the Rainforest Action Network have adapted “Keep it in the Ground” framing to local concerns. In the case of RAN, that of opposing extraction on public lands in the United States (Rainforest Action Network, n.d.).
This article has traced the origins of fossil fuel divestment from the 1980s anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, to Greenpeace International’s early attention to investor risks associated with climate change extreme weather events during the 1990s and later to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign to close coal-fired power plants in the United States, before being popularized and spread worldwide by Bill McKibben, 350.org, and its allies. As a tactic, divestment calls upon and relies on a series of central moral arguments that are paired with the authority of scientific findings and economic analysis. Advocates not only warn that the global society risks burning through all of its allowed carbon budget and setting a course of climate change catastrophe, but that institutions are at risk of major financial losses as a result. Stigmatized socially—and the subject of enhanced regulation in the form of carbon taxes and other restrictions—investments in the fossil fuel industry are increasingly at risk of becoming “stranded assets,” which could lead to diminishing investment returns and eventually unrecoverable losses (Ansar et al., 2013).
There is a tension within climate advocacy between policy-based means and technological advances to address climate change, on the one hand, and individual-level behavioral social marketing strategies, on the other (Alexander et al., 2014). By morally stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry and advocating for transparent accounting of the financial risk inherent in fossil fuel extraction, divestment as a movement attempts to shift energy investments toward clean energy technologies while assigning a negative economic and social value to fossil fuels.
Despite the rapid rise of fossil fuel divestment within the climate movement (Howard, 2015b), little attention has been paid to it within scholarship on environmental governance and policy as a form of “non-state governance” (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017, p. 2). Given the failure of nation-state action on climate change mitigation, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are employing divestment as a strategy to pressure coal, oil, and gas companies directly (Ayling & Gunningham, 2017). Fossil fuel divestment represents a shift on the part of civil society actors from a nation-state policy level and international negotiation framework focused on market-based mitigation and adaption solutions to a climate justice one advocating for fundamental change to the capitalist system (see Bratman et al., 2016).
Fossil fuel divestment serves as a symbolic challenge to the capitalist system and critique of the global neoliberal economic system. It can thus be understood via an anti-capitalist perspective (see Parr, 2013), which is favored by fossil fuel divestment activists calling for systemic changes to the global free market system (see Klein, 2014). Newell and Paterson (2010) define climate capitalism in a manner not inconsistent with fossil fuel divestment, as the broad processes of “decarbonisation” of the global economy, similar to what divestment advocates are calling on institutions and the energy industry to do. Hunter Lovins and Cohen (2011) argue for the necessity of radical transformation of the global economic system. Collectively, as a movement, fossil fuel divestment campaigns question the underpinnings of market-based climate solutions that have become the norm for addressing climate change by international, as well as nation-state governmental, actors and private industry since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Newell & Paterson, 2010, p. 34).
In this way, the potential range of solutions seen as viable to addressing climate change that have developed in the international policy arena have centered on the capitalist system. Given that over the years since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, little has advanced in the arena of market-based climate solutions. Fossil fuel divestment activists are pushing for more radical tactics outside of the capitalist system to pressure industry and institutional actors alike for meaningful climate action. Following the 2015 Paris climate agreement where representatives of 195 nations set an ambitious goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by mid-century, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016, it is likely that climate activists will shift additional attention toward fossil fuel divestment both as a tactic to stigmatize investments in fossil fuel companies and as a movement questioning the very tenets of the capitalist system.
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