Ever more municipalities and universities have joined the call to divest fossil fuel, thus reinforcing the message that these institutions are unwilling to back financially an industry that is a potential threat to our very own existence. Örebro in Sweden, Boxtel in the Netherlands and Seattle in the USA are all part of a growing push for cities to pull their money out of fossil fuel. The impact so far is negligible – in the coal business, money leaves one way only to enter the other – but the whole movement isn’t concerned with destabilizing the fossil fuel industry financially. Not in the short term at least. Its aim is purely symbolic: get people thinking about climate change, global warming and our sickly overreliance on fossil fuel and spark a debate. Whether fossil fuel divestment can be turned into a “thing” that pressures policy makers into taking action remains to be seen.
Pulling money out of fossil fuel – divest now!
Bill McKibben, one of the world’s top climate activists, was among the first to call out fossil fuel divestment. Him and other fellow activists working under the 350.org group launched the “Fossil Free” movement in 2011, which aims to convince authorities and private entities alike to cut oil, gas and coal funds. It first began in US universities, but it has since spread to New Zealand, Australia and – last year – to Europe. Cities, towns, universities, religious entities and even the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune pledged their support and vowed to divest fossil fuel.
“The effects of climate change are huge and are already being felt,” Tine Langkamp, Germany’s divestment campaign organizer, who was also involved in a campaign in the west German city of Münster, told Deutsche Welle. “Divestment not only attacks financial support, but also is starting a debate about the morality of investing in fossil fuels.”
“We want to find a new social norm, so that people in future ask: ‘how can you invest in coal?'” added Langkamp.
The idea is interesting and follows the path that similar divestment movement took. For instance, a similar call to action against the South African apartheid saw 155 US campuses, 26 governments and 90 cities take their money out of the country in the 1980s. This time, however, we’re talking about the whole fossil fuel industry – a much greater beast to tackle than some local racial seggregationism, already under international scrutiny.
“It’s not the immediate financial impact that makes divestment campaigns successful, but removing the target’s social license to operate,” said Melanie Mattauch, the group’s Europe communications coordinator.
Treating fossil fuel like the leprosy
This summer, Örebro, Sweden became the 30th local authority to divest from oil, gas and coal funds, reducing its investments from 2 million to 655,000 euros, with others likely to follow next year as part of the “Fossil Free” movement.
“We need to take action on climate change on various levels,” said Örebro’s mayor Lena Baastad. “Our efforts are more meaningful when we ensure that our financial assets don’t work in the opposite direction.”
Of course, the whole story was met with all sorts of incidents – some humorous, others less so. Glasgow University was the first university in Europe to announce it will divest fossil energy, but soon enough five geology and engineering academics at the university stepped out and called the whole thing a “vacuous posturing” because the institution and Scotland still rely on fossil fuels for energy. Personally, I find this to be a very weak argument. The line of thought is: “OK, we’re not even thinking about switching before we know we don’t need fossil fuel anymore”. It goes around in circles and ends up nowhere.
As always, the biggest blunders in terms of energy policy come from Australia. When the Australia National University (ANU) decided last month to ditch its fossil fuel investments, the country’s prime-minister, the wise Tony Abbott, stepped out and called it a “stupid decision”. Frankly, we couldn’t expect anything clever coming out of Mr. Abbott’s mouth, the same man that made Australia the only developed country in the world without a carbon tax. Doh!
Yet, while Fossil Free is symbolic in nature, it also makes a valid point financially. Burning fossil fuel at the rate we’re seeing might cause a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 (some projections range from 4 to 6 degrees Celsius), a threshold that might push the world into calamity that might end up costing trillions and trillions. Even if we look closer in time, we can see a growing trend among developed countries where fossil fuel companies are increasingly capped and taxed based on their emissions.
“You have to ask whether you are investing in something that has a future, or in something that is on its way out – like coal,” said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
“The only question is how fast that end will come. On that question hinges whether we have a habitable world or not. If we can do it in 25 years, then we’ve got a shot, not at stopping global warming but stopping it getting entirely out of control. If we take 50 or 60 years, then forget it, the science couldn’t be clearer.”
If you’re an activist, visit the 350.org website and contact the team there to organize an event, meet-up or workshop in your local community.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.