The Growing Movement to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Posted by | December 4, 2012

A movement is building to push for change in the global energy conversation through divestment from fossil fuel companies.  This may seem to be a bold and radical mission, but author-activist Bill McKibben, whose is at the heart of the message, believes this is a campaign whose time has come.  He summarized his argument succinctly at a recent speech at Harvard University:  Fossil fuel companies’ business models are to “declare war on life on Earth . . . [and] if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”  For more detail on the science behind his assertion, see the Rolling Stone article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, or read our summary.

McKibben recently hit the road in a biodiesel bus for a 21-city speaking tour to raise awareness around why divestment is a powerful tool for education.  The most prominent example of this was, of course, the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.  Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the early 1990s, this campaign, which was a primary focus of the nascent Socially Responsible Investing industry, mobilized educational institutions, governments, and faith-based investors to divest from companies with South African business interests.  According to an analysis by corporate responsibility consultant Richard Knight, during the 1980s a total of 155 colleges at least partially divested.  They were joined by 90 cities, 22 counties, and 26 states that also took some form of economic action.  Nelson Mandela has stated that he believes the University of California’s $3 billion divestment in the late 1980s was a particularly significant milestone in the eventual dismantling of apartheid.

It is probably not surprising then that McKibben is focusing his efforts at colleges, universities and religious organizations across the country.  Today’s youth will have many decades to manage the impacts of current and future climate change and have the most at stake.  They may be able to speak collectively and persuasively that fossil fuel risks have grown too large to ignore and must be addressed systemically.  Since early November, more than 100 college and university groups have signed on to the campaign to Go Fossil Free.  Some, like Harvard, University of New Hampshire, and Brown, are passing student resolutions and pushing for dialogue with administrators.  Others, such Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have already started the process of creating new investment policies.

We applaud the work of these young activists and wish them great success.  Clearly, we are of like mind that the risks inherent in these industries are just too high.  We have supported since its launch and Portfolio 21 Investments’ policy is to not invest in fossil fuel production or any extractive industry.  We recently shared more about our policy, and the reasoning behind it, with journalist Marc Gunther following his recent article on this topic for Guardian Sustainable Business (“Where can investors who worry about climate change put their pension?”, November 30, 2012).  Marc included our response, along with comments from several other fund managers, in a follow up post on his blog.


Amanda is Portfolio 21 Investments' Communications Manager.  She has more than 10 years of research, communications, and interactive media experience in the financial industry.

Post categories: climate change, divest fossil fuels, energy, environmental investing, fossil fuel-free investing, fossil fuels, fossil-free investing, global warming, green investing, socially responsible investing, sustainable investing

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