Universities have long been seen as the face of progress, innovation, and a general sense of moving the world into the future. However, many of these academic institutions do not reflect those same values when it comes to the industries in which they choose to invest. The fossil fuel industry is one of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis. Many of our universities support that industry’s explicit destruction of the earth by investing our university endowments in it.
To put it simply, our universities are funding climate change — the very crisis that affects not only the livelihood and future of their students, but also those of billions of innocent people.
Fossil fuel divestment is not just about taking money away from fossil fuel corporations to reduce their profitability. In fact, that typically does not happen, since the divested shares will be (unfortunately) picked up by others. The symbolic gesture of divesting from the fossil fuel industry is far more impactful.
The impact is two-fold. On one end, divestment changes the power dynamics between universities and their students (i.e., institutions and the people they serve), by allowing the latter to have more say in how the school operates. This returns power to the people. On the other end, divestment increases the stigma around association with big oil, making fossil fuel investment socially unacceptable everywhere.
University endowments can be used as tools for social change. In terms of the climate crisis, the fossil fuel industry is an obvious target. However, endowment divestment is also being successfully used to challenge other social ills. Some other well-known divestment-centered movements include prison industry divestment and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Divestment has in the past been a successful tactic. In the late 20th century, as a protest against apartheid, students pressured their universities to divest from corporations that were conducting business in South Africa. It worked. That pressure on the South African government eventually led to the dismantling of the apartheid system.
Fossil fuel divestment has been incredibly successful and widespread. Nearly $10 trillion has been divested from the fossil fuel industry since fossil fuel divestment campaigns began in 2010. Institutions of all sorts have made this commitment — including colleges, universities, cities, and quite notably the entire country of Ireland.
Divestment campaigns can take years to complete. Depending on the individual campaign, success can be the partial or full divestment of funds from the fossil fuel industry or just the commitment to do so within a set period of time. Despite the financial and moral arguments for divestment, the majority of institutions hesitate to do so, likely because of the political message it sends. In divesting, institutions essentially take a stand against one of the major political influencers in the world. Although this is politically risky, it is ethically, economically, socially, and scientifically what needs to be done to combat the climate crisis. Power must be taken away from the fossil fuel industry.
Some universities choose not to divest because of the precedent it sets for student activism. Essentially, if a university gives way to the will of one student group, they fear that protests and resistance would be commonplace for other sorts of student-demanded change. Again, this brings up the issue of the problematic power dynamic between universities and their students. A shift from this is necessary in order to force universities to value its own students and community over unethical industries.
The climate crisis encompasses a multitude of racial, economic and social issues. Without alleviating the climate crisis, we will not be able to solve these issues. The same is true in reverse. Without alleviating racial, economic and social issues, we will not be able to solve the climate crisis. The actions our major institutions take in regards to this will define our future as a society. As the most important political issue of our time, universities have a responsibility to take action on the climate crisis and divest.
“Reinvestment” is a critical, yet often overlooked component of fossil fuel divestment campaigns. While we do want divestment from the fossil fuel industry, we don’t want those divested funds to be invested in other immoral systems — such as the prison-industrial complex, or other industries that profit from the suffering of others and the planet. Hence, in the divestment movement, we use “reinvestment” as a term to signify investment into communities most impacted by the climate crisis and clean energy.
Campus fossil fuel divestment still has progress to make. However, through organizations like Divest Ed in the United States, greater coordination is occurring across campus groups to mount bigger actions and garner greater public attention.
If you are unaffiliated with a university and would like to get involved with a fossil fuel divestment campaign near you, check out https://gofossilfree.org/. At this site there are resources to help you support an existing campaign or start one of your own.