Four years ago a report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative sparked the global campaign to persuade universities, faith organisations and public institutions to sell financial holdings in fossil fuel companies.
The reasoning behind the divestment campaign is simple. Fossil fuel emissions have played a major role in setting the world on course to a 5˚C rise in temperatures.
Limiting global warming to 2˚C is generally agreed as being a safe limit to avoid catastrophic climate change requires leaving around 82 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
It’s clear that the Shells and BPs of this world have every intention of pushing the planet beyond this tipping point, and that politicians are behind them. Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson rejected a motion for City Hall to divest.
The divestment campaign has been focused on campuses, with students in the US taking a lead alongside the climate campaign group 350.org.
At the time of writing, 23 universities in the US have cut their investment in fossil fuel companies, while the political leaders of more than 25 cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have made similar commitments.
Here in the UK we have begun to see successes too. In 2014 Glasgow became the first university in Europe to divest, and SOAS froze their investments in April this year.
Fossil Free campaigns have since sprung up at over 50 universities, and a recent occupation at the LSE linked fossil fuel divestment with divestment from Israel. Even the Church of England recently sold its shares.
Critics of fossil fuel divestment have suggested that it doesn’t really hit the profits of the big energy companies, because they will always be able to find someone to invest in the highly profitable oil, gas and coal markets.
This is true. No one expects a few universities selling their shares to trigger a meltdown for Shell or BP. However, the primary aim of divestment is its political impact.
Activists frequently reference the boycott movement against apartheid in South African as a touchstone, in which students played a key role in forcing companies such as Barclays Bank to stop funding the racist regime.
By attempting to make investments in fossil energy untouchable, campaigners aim to make more powerful demands, such as banning political donations from fuel companies or fossil fuel advertising on TV.
Global anti-capitalist campaigner Naomi Klein is more optimistic, claiming that “it might even create the space for a serious discussion about whether these profits are so illegitimate that they deserve to be appropriated and reinvested in solutions to the climate crisis.”
Of course for socialists, the climate change crisis cannot be solved by lobbying companies, governments or institutions. The destructive drive for profit under capitalism threatens to send our planet into environmental decline.
Only if we replace this system with a society based on need rather than greed, will we be able to seriously confront the climate crisis.
However, it would be wrong to downplay the movement. Over half-a-million people across the world marched in 2014 and 20,000 took part in the Time To Act demonstration in London last March.
Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, has been an international bestseller, and an event in London earlier this year inspired by the book drew up to 1,000 young people together to discuss anti-capitalist approaches to climate change.
Climate activists are increasingly open to revolutionary politics — system change to deal with climate change.
Moreover, there is every opportunity for this thread to continue as activists prepare to take to the streets for the COP21 talks in Paris this December.
We need to continue to build the fossil fuel divestment movement, using it to highlight the destructive nature of investment in dirty energy, while bringing anti-capitalist politics to the fore.