Why we all need to push for fossil fuel divestment

Divestment campaigners stage a mock wedding between ESCC and fossil fuels, outside County Hall on 22 March 2022. Photo: Katie Vandyck.

Many environmental campaigners are pressing major investors such as the East Sussex Pension Fund to sell their holdings in oil, coal and gas companies. But why is divestment so important to climate action? Gabriel Carlyle of Divest East Sussex explains.

For over eight and a half years, climate campaigners have been pressing East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to stop investing local people’s pensions in the giant fossil fuel (oil, coal & gas) companies that are driving the climate crisis. This pressure has led ESCC to slash these investments: from over £150m to roughly £20m. But campaigners are still pushing for a full divestment commitment. Why?

Ending fossil fuels
To understand this, we need to ask what the global fossil fuel divestment movement is all about. What goals is it trying to accomplish and how does it plan to achieve them?

Though it targets investors, the movement’s ultimate goal is to create the political space for governments to take the actions necessary for addressing the climate crisis: first and foremost, the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels.

It aims to do this by undermining the political power of the fossil fuel industries. And it achieves this by getting institutions, like the East Sussex Pension Fund, to make public commitments to fully divest from fossil fuels.

The problem
It’s worth pausing here to remind ourselves why the fossil fuel companies need to be singled out.

It’s not just that fossil fuels are the largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world, accounting for around 70% of all such emissions. It’s also that fossil fuel companies have spent decades blocking effective action on climate change.

Indeed, according to climate scientist Michael Mann: ‘The truth is, if we took the disinformation campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry out of the equation, the climate problem would have been solved decades ago.’

And these efforts continue to this day. For example, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total have together spent over $1bn on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying, aimed at undermining the Paris Climate Agreement, since 2015.

‘Wrong enough to legislate against’
Over the next nine years, the world’s largest oil and gas companies are projected to spend over $930 billion on new oil and gas developments. None of this is compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5ºC – the threshold set in the Paris Agreement.

To combat these plans, we need to create the conditions whereby fossil fuel companies are, in the words of Ellen Quigley at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, publicly acknowledged to be ‘wrong enough to legislate against’.

And we can achieve this by (among other things) getting institutions to publicly declare that they will no longer invest in these rogue businesses.

This is strategy with a proven track record. Indeed, a 2013 study by academics at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment concluded that: ‘In almost every divestment campaign we reviewed from adult services to Darfur, from tobacco to South Africa, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation affecting stigmatised firms.’

The $39 trillion divestment commitment
Alongside other climate campaigners targeting the fossil fuel system, the divestment movement has already had a major impact.

Some 1,500 institutions around the world – collectively worth over $39 trillion – have already made some form of divestment commitment. And even prominent critics of the movement have acknowledged that ‘it’s been hugely successful at reducing the political capital and influence of the fossil fuel industry’.

On the other hand, quietly sidling towards the exit door – as ESCC has been doing – has zero political impact.

Divest East Sussex is currently involved in a wide range of different initiatives across East Sussex, Brighton & Hove, from door-knocking and petition-drives to co-organising a mass noise demo (‘Bang the drum for fossil fuel divestment!’) outside County Hall in Lewes on Tuesday 12 July. To get involved and / or to join our email list, visit: https://divesteastsussex.wordpress.comor contact divesteastsussex@gmail.com or 07596 483 272.


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