In October, record numbers of fossil fuel companies were withdrawn by investors, foundations, universities, and governments.
In the last month, there have been several significant advances in the decades-old effort to get large investment funds to divert their money from harmful oil, gas, and coal. The Ford Foundation, a charity based on the profits of the combustion engine’s production, announced Oct. 18 that it would be launching a major fundraising campaign. divest its endowmentFrom fossil fuel companies.
The foundation also promised to invest in renewable energy companies and funds that “address the threat of climate change and support the transition to a green economy.”
Fossil fuels represented a relatively small percentage of the Ford Foundation’s total investment portfolio, but even a fraction makes a huge difference when you’re worth $16 billion.
That’s a point activists and community organizers have been making with increasing regularity over the past decade. Their growing success shows that a collective voice for change can make an impact.
“Most people don’t have an oil well in their backyard, but everyone lives near some pot of money,” says climate activist Bill McKibben. “And so the climate fight has come to college campuses, to church denominations, to union halls with pension funds. It’s made the abstract very real for millions of campaigners.”
McKibben first advocated for fossil-fuel divestment in 2012 as a way to “revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry.”
This goal seems more relevant today.
A World Meteorological Organization report dated Oct. 25 showed that greenhouse gases hit an all-time high last year. This follows a UN Environment Programme report which found that many world governments still have plans. blow way past their Paris Climate Accord commitments and keep extracting fossil fuels — “240% more coal, 57% more oil, and 71% more gas than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C,” the goal of the climate agreement.
At the same time, the number of fossil fuel company bankruptcies has soared — more than 100 in 2020 in the United States alone — and their access to capital has in some cases recededHowever, many banks continue to pump money into oil and natural gas.
Still, it’s not bad for a movement many were ready to write off just a few years ago. Now, McKibben says, divestment has “turned into what’s probably the biggest anti-corporate campaign in history. It’s not only badly tarnished the social license of these companies but dented their access to capital so badly that Peabody Coal called it one cause of their bankruptcy and Shell Oil said it was having a ‘material adverse effect’ on their business. Since their business is having a material adverse effect on the prospects for life on earth, turnabout is fair play.”
October saw many positive developments, including a reversal on several fronts. 72 faith institutionsMany local governments. New York CityIt promised that its retirement fund investments would achieve net emission-zero emissions by 2040, while also doubling its investments into clean energy, efficiency, climate solutions. BaltimoreSigned legislation to achieve this goal by 2050.
The education side is the University of Illinois. Dartmouth College. Loyola University. Midwest UniversityThe University of TorontoAll announced new plans for divestment after years of student organizing.
Similar student-led calls for divestment took root this month California Polytechnic State UniversityThe University of Virginia. They all follow Harvard University’s example, which announced plans for divesting its $53 billion endowment in September after almost a decade of protests.
What are the best ways for other schools to make similar gains? In an essay for Fast Company, a Harvard student organizer suggested using creative tactics such as emphasizing fossil fuel investments’ legal and financial risks.
Is the divestment trend just beginning to heat up? The pressure and devolving social license have even started to influence business leaders’ decisions. Five major investment groups representing $60 trillion in assets each called for the inauguration. utilitiesThey hold holdings that can be decarbonized by 2035.
All this forward motion shows the effectiveness and failing economics of fossil-fuels. However, not everyone is getting the message. This month a notorious climate-denial website called the divestment campaign “the dumbest movement in history.” That shows how much activists have gotten under the skin of those who still have the most to profit from oil, gas, coal and climate disinformation.
The editor of The Revelator. His work has been published in the prestigious environmental journal, The Award-Winning Environmental Journalist. Scientific American. Audubon. Motherboard, and many other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of both the Society of Environmental Journalists as well as the National Association of Science Writers. John lives in Portland, Ore., and is surrounded by cartoonists, animals, and other people.