Movement for fossil fuel divestment spreads globally

As organisations ranging from city councils to churches withdraw their investments in fossil fuels, Nicola Slawson looks at how a small US student campaign has become a global movement to tackle climate change

When I first started working at Positive News I was asked if I was interested in reporting from an event about climate change, and I hesitated. Not because climate change didn’t interest me but because, in all honesty, I felt overwhelmed by the subject.

I’m not alone. In the documentary Do The Math, even Bill McKibben, founder of international environmental organisation 350.org, admits to feeling daunted by the problem. And at the Hub Eco Series film screening in London I found that this is a sentiment shared by much of the audience. But Do The Math offers a way of looking at the issue, and tackling the problem, that could help make it all clearer.

The film focuses on three key numbers. Firstly, at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit it was agreed that action is needed to limit the rise in global average temperature to 2C or less to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Secondly, to not exceed this, scientists have calculated that we can only emit 565 gigatons more carbon dioxide, which at current rates will take just 16 years. This is a big enough challenge as it is but the film stresses the third figure: 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide are locked-up in investments in proven fossil fuel reserves, such as coal mines and gas and oil fields.

“We need to hit fossil fuel companies where it hurts: their money”

These numbers are frightening and seemingly impossible to address, so what can we do about it? The experts in the film recognise the enormity of the challenge, but McKibben says we need to hit fossil fuel companies where it hurts: their money. And that’s where divestment comes in.

350.org’s international Fossil Free campaign is pushing companies and organisations that serve the public good to divest. In other words, to withdraw money they have invested in fossil fuels.

What began in 2011 as a student-led campaign at a handful of US colleges has now gained huge momentum. Not only have 13 of the country’s colleges and universities committed to stop investing in fossil fuels, but the movement is spreading globally.

“More and more investors are pulling their money out of climate-wrecking fossil fuel companies,” says Tim Ratcliffe, European divestment coordinator at 350.org.

“This growing movement won’t bankrupt them financially but it can remove their social licence to operate and take away their political power.”

Earlier this month Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to divest. Following a year of student campaigning the university court voted to begin withdrawing £18m invested in fossil fuels.

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Students elsewhere are confident that their institutions will follow suit. After the film screening Emilia Smeds, a University College London student and part of student network People and Planet’s divestment campaign, told Positive News that she was optimistic that her university would divest as they already have an ethical investment policy and have previously divested from the arms trade.

“The complexity of the climate change issue and how embedded fossil fuels are in our economy can be very disheartening,” says Smeds. “So actually trying to do something about it, focusing on a concrete goal such as divestment of certain UCL funds, is very satisfying.”

But it’s not just educational institutions that are turning their backs on fossil fuels. Thanks to the involvement of other sectors, divestment commitments have more than doubled since the beginning of 2014 and have now been made by more than 800 global investors. Over the next five years $50bn (£31bn) will be taken out of the fossil fuel industry.

More than 30 city and county councils have committed to remove fossil fuel investments in countries including the US, the Netherlands, New Zealand and recently the UK, with Oxford City Council becoming the country’s first in September.

“From our jobs to our pensions, we’re all associated with organisations that potentially hold investments in fossil fuels.”

In June the British Medical Association became the first medical organisation in the world to divest after declaring climate change to be “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” and despite making much of its money through oil companies in the past, major US financial institution the Rockerfeller Foundation recently announced that it will liquidate all stakes in companies linked to climate change.

There’s now even a fossil-free finance index, Fossil Free Indexes US, which excludes fossil fuel investments from its rankings in an effort to support the growing divestment movement.

Faith groups around the globe are also getting on board. So far 45 religious institutions, including the World Council of Churches, have divested and 80 theological and religious leaders have released a statement in support of the movement.

Siobhan Grimes, a leading member of Christian climate change charity Operation Noah’s Bright Now divestment campaign, says the most positive thing about the campaign is “that communal sense of action and creativity in addressing climate change”.

From our jobs to our pensions, we’re all associated with organisations that potentially hold investments in fossil fuels. Campaigners say the first step for those who want to support divestment is finding out who you can put pressure on. With collective action increasingly adding up against the industry, the numbers presented in Do the Math may soon not look quite so daunting after all.

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