What is Divestment - and What Does It Have to Do With Climate Change?

Divestment is, simply, the selling off of assets – the opposite of an investment. While this can be done for financial or business reasons, it is usually referred to in the context of campaigns to achieve social or environmental goals by stigmatizing perpetrators of injustice or harm and encouraging political action against them. Divestment has been used as a strategy for change on many issues, including major campaigns waged against South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s, tobacco companies in the 1990s, and the genocide in Darfur by the Sudanese government in the 2000s.

While historians have questioned the extent of direct economic impacts on governments and corporations targeted for divestment, many of these campaigns have been considered successful for catalyzing political actions that have changed the course of history. For instance, divestment helped to pressure U.S. legislators to pass economic sanctions that ultimately helped to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa. Similarly, divestment increased public scrutiny of tobacco companies for misleading consumers about the health impacts of smoking and built support for new taxes on cigarettes, restrictions on advertising, and laws against smoking in public spaces.


What is the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement?

The fossil fuel divestment movement follows in the lineage of these campaigns, and is perhaps the most high-profile divestment campaign in the world today. It traces its roots to Swarthmore University in 2011, where a group of students launched the first college fossil fuel divestment campaign after learning about divestment strategies in their peace and conflict studies class. The fledgling movement was given a national spotlight by prominent environmental leader Bill McKibben through his climate change-focused climate activism group 350.org and a widely-read article in Rolling Stone in 2012. Today, there are groups on over 400 campuses in the U.S. alone advancing the cause.

Simply put by Fossil Free, an online hub of the movement, “if it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” On these grounds, Fossil Free is asking educational and religious institutions, governments, and other organizations to:


  • Immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies;
  • Divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years
  • End their fossil fuels sponsorship


Some have argued that divesting won’t do much to hurt fossil fuel companies, since they are still quite profitable and other investors will step in to replace these funds. However, this misses the point: as with previous movements, fossil fuel divestment is about recognizing that climate change a moral issue, given the potential threat it poses to our planet and our families, and about putting mainstream institutions on record as supporting this idea. And by building consensus around the notion that inaction on climate is immoral, the divestment movement seeks to ultimately change the politics on this issue to support the more robust policies we need to facilitate a global transition to clean energy.


Who is Divesting – and How Much?

According to Fossil Free, more than 517 institutions representing $3.4 trillion in investments have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. These include a very wide range of stakeholders from all over the world, including for-private corporations, pension funds, governmental and non-governmental organizations, educational institutions, faith-based groups, foundations, and others.


(Source: Fossil Free)


In a true sign of the times, both the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Foundation – run by members of the same Rockefeller family that founded Standard Oil and built its wealth on oil in the 20th century – have agreed to divest their fossil fuel holdings. Not only that, but the Rockefeller Family Foundation’s statement of divestment singled out ExxonMobil, which was originally spun out of Standard Oil, for its “morally reprehensible” conduct in misleading the public about the role fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are playing in global warming.


Help Shift Power Away from the Fossil Fuel Industry By Going Solar

Mosaic’s DNA is linked closely to fossil fuel divestment, as the Energy Action Coalition youth climate activist network co-founded by Mosaic founder Billy Parish is another major supporter of the divestment movement. The Coalition coined the term “Power Shift” to crystallize the idea that we should reduce the economic and political power of fossil fuels and entrenched energy interests by empowering everyday people to grow a new, clean energy economy. Mosaic is working to put these principles into action by helping homeowners generate their own zero-carbon solar power – click here to find out how you can join the movement.


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