Two Views. You Choose: Fossil Fuel Divestment

Monday 12-10-2015 - 16:55

In the lead up to our annual Zone Conferences, NUS is highlighting the key themes from each of the five Zones. For this Two Views You Choose piece, we’re exploring the debate around fossil fuel divestment. Agree? Disagree? Have your say by voting in the poll at the bottom of the page.

In recent months, institutions as far reaching as the University of Glasgow and the University of California have committed to pulling their money out of firms which invest in fossil fuels and in the year to come, encouraging other institutions to divest will be at the core of the Society and Citizenship’s campaigning efforts.

This debate serves as a pause for thought and ponders whether or not organising around this issue is the most strategic approach students can take to saving the planet.

Is fossil fuel divestment the most sustainable way to address climate change?



Divestment simplifies a complicated issue without watering down what needs to be achieved. No arguments about the effectiveness of carbon tax, cap and trade or geoengineering. No finger pointing at the poor or the voiceless. Our opponent is the fossil fuel industry. The aim is to ensure they leave 80 per cent of fossil fuels in the ground. Simple, effective and just.

And this is the big one. We need huge reforms in almost all areas of life, sure. But if we’re fighting those battles in a world heading for four degrees warming, it’s just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Milk, hot water and trains can still exist in a sustainable world. Fossil fuel extraction is different. It simply needs to stop. That’s why it’s our primary target.

Of course, it’s fair to note that economic changes much larger than moving our money are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. But another beauty of divestment is that it creates real platforms for doing this.

Firstly, when we take our money out of something, we’re forced to consider where we put it instead. And where we can put it is into the decentralised, clean energy projects we need to see. Sure, divestment won’t literally bankrupt the fossil fuel industry – but it can destabilise the economic framework on which it depends. We can use our money to put the control of energy back into the hands of communities. And energy might just be the start. 

Secondly, divestment is a two-way process. It’s about cutting financial ties to the illegitimate fossil fuel industry, and our investments are only one side of a coin. Divestment also takes on the influence fossil fuel companies have in shaping our education system and culture, through stuff like sponsorships and scholarships. This is what legitimises their practice and props up the unfair economic orthodoxy on which they depend. Curbing that influence will have transformative effects.

It’s not trite to point out that divestment is also simply the right thing to do. We can’t profit from an industry which condemns billions to misery, starvation, conflict and death. Half of this campaign is about helping people around the world to recognise the deathly practices of fossil fuel companies, and it says a lot when our most respected institutions make a stand.

Thankfully for the pragmatists, it’s also an effective way of crumbling the power of the fossil fuel industry. It focusses on the real issue at the heart of climate change: the vested interests of capitalism’s biggest winners. It also offers us the tools for shaping a real alternative: freeing up capital to shape a decentralised economy and community owned energy, while building popular public support for governmental investment in renewables, and getting us off fossil fuels for good.

In the end, divestment is no distraction from the battle for political and economic reform. It’s an integral part of it.



Try living a day without fossil fuels. Have a cold shower; don’t use shower gel. Don’t brush your teeth. Don’t put on elastane underpants or a polyester top. Don’t watch TV or use your phone. Don’t drive, don’t use public transport; just don’t go out – you’ll be walking on a bitumen pavement.

The unfortunate truth is that we cannot live our lives without fossil fuels. But we are not subservient to fossil fuels: we are subservient to our economic mode of production, born out of the industrial revolution. Capitalism is dependent on fossil fuels: first coal, now oil and gas. We are forced to live in a society reliant on the very things that threaten environmental collapse.

If you want to save the environment, you have to tackle global, free-market capitalism. In a world where investors are willing to buy the rights to HIV drugs and hike their price by 5000 per cent there are always going to be people willing to invest in fossil fuels. As long as we have to use them, there is profit to be made. 

The sad thing is, if divestment actually hits the profits of fossil fuel companies, the people who really suffer are not the rich but the poor. Our consumption patterns, our transport needs, our basic living requirements are not going to change as a result of divestment. The cost of divestment will pass on to the consumer, and those who have the lowest incomes also spend the largest proportion of it on energy, transport and daily essentials derived from oil.

Divestment is a campaign strategy, it has no clear policy goals. Fossil fuel companies are an easy scapegoat and attacking them is far more cathartic than attacking dairy farmers or fertiliser producers or the timber industry, all of which should also be seen as the ‘enemy’ under the divestor’s logic.

We need an economic strategy with the environment at its core. Break up the hegemony of finance capital, redistribute wealth and facilitate changes in consumption patterns, facilitate green energy transition and community-based energy production, invest in public transport, alter microbial populations in cattle, and support sustainable development in the global south. You can’t fit it on a pin badge, but it’s what we must campaign for, rather than the divestment sideshow.

Divestment supporters want to save the world; the point, however, is to change it first.

Is fossil fuel divestment the most sustainable way to address climate change?
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