What would happen if we connected two distinct pieces of the solution to climate inaction?
Fossil fuel divestment – the demand to “disinvest” from companies with fossil fuel reserves and reinvest in renewable energy – has taken the world by storm. Since the campaign launched in 2013, dozens of schools, cities, companies, and pension funds have decided to divest funds in the trillions of dollars. Over seven hundred campaigns are underway on five continents. At the COP20 UN climate negotiations, Shell organized a side event against divestment, and the fossil fuel industry is now on the defensive.
Fossil fuel divestment is about shifting the balance of power from special interests to the public. Whereas the fact that the fossil fuel industry corrupts these negotiations isn’t news, the empowerment of young people definitely is. Young people are ordinarily disempowered in these negotiation halls. We are told that we are “the future” but that, in the meanwhile, we are essentially irrelevant.
It is important to acknowledge the way youth have been historically sidelined in international decision-making processes. While we are definitely not the only group to be marginalized – women, indigenous communities, communities of colour and of low socioeconomic status, as well as LGBTQ+ have all been dismissed – we recognize the irony of observing decisions being made about our future all the while being neglected a seat at the negotiating table.
Fossil fuel divestment is an opportunity to shift this narrative. Youth are no longer sidelined, because we are making noise that is reverberating from our university campuses through negotiating halls. We are demanding that our colleges divest from fossil fuels: since the very existence of higher education is to expand knowledge and provide us with a better future, it goes against our schools’ missions to be investing in companies that will be providing us with anything but a future. And with the growth of this campaign – the fastest growth of any divestment campaign in history – companies have no choice but to take notice.
Although divestment campaigns have spread to country pension funds and charitable foundations, the movement began on university campuses in the United States. Fossil fuel companies have taken notice. In fact, even the former Chairman of one of the most notorious companies – Shell – stated earlier this week that fossil fuel divestment makes sense. Divestment is about bringing us to the fossil free world we know is possible.
Both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and UNFCCC Secretary General Christiana Figueres have called for fossil fuel divestment as a means of helping move the world forward on climate change, especially as a means of putting pressure on countries to cooperate in negotiations. However, they have not yet walked their talk – the UN itself has not divested from fossil fuels, neither financially nor ideologically. Recently, a petition to divest the United Nations Pension Fund from fossil fuels was started.
Can divestment help move the world toward the agreement we need? I think so. Forcing ourselves to acknowledge how the tentacles of the fossil fuel industry pervade our society – our schools, our cities, our pension funds, our multilateral negotiations – empowers us to move towards a fossil-free future.