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date: 23 April 2017

Fossil Fuel Divestment and Climate Change Communication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

During the COP21 Paris climate talks in December 2015, as part of a push to “divest for Paris,” 350.org and Divest-Invest announced that fossil fuel divestment commitments had reached US$3.4 trillion in assets from more than 500 institutions and organizations. Divestment has been characterized as a socially responsible investment 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 and efforts to shun industry sectors based on harmful products, such as tobacco, private prisons, and firearms. The tactic has also been used in geopolitical disputes and human rights campaigns, targeting nation-states such as Sudan, Iran, Northern Ireland, and Israel. As a strategy, divestment bridges structural change and individual agency. Individuals can take action on climate by divesting personal investments from the fossil fuel industry while pressuring institutions to do so.

This article traces the development of the fossil fuel divestment movement from Bill McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math” and its growth on college campuses, to The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. In partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, the Keep It in the Ground campaign was launched 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 “campaign of the year” 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. This article overviews the origins and tracks the rise of this messaging and the movement’s communication strategies. It also addresses post-COP21 divestment actions in May 2016, organized by the Break Free from Fossil Fuels coalition.

Scholarship on the origins of fossil fuel divestment campaigns has evaluated the motivations of activists for focusing on divestment in relation to other climate action tactics. They situate the development of the fossil fuel divestment movement within ongoing debates in the field of environmental sociology that include anti-capitalist and Treadmill of Production perspectives, climate governance, and Ecological Modernization Theory. Additionally, this article overviews arguments in favor and against divestment as a climate action strategy, 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.

There is a tension within climate action 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 hand. Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has been gaining traction in the United States, with student-led organizing focused on pressuring universities to divest endowment assets on moral grounds, and increasingly on an international scale. 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, it is likely that climate activists will shift additional attention towards fossil fuel divestment as a tactic.