What is Divestment?
Divestment is the act of selling off subsidiary business interests or investments. Currently, the University of Denver’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies. By calling on the University to divest from fossil fuels, we call the University to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, sell off remaining stocks, and reinvest in climate solutions. In recent years, the word “divestment” has begun to mean the act of stopping investments in industries involved in social injustices.
The history of divestment as a method to push for social change begins with its birth during the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, many US and European institutions divested from all companies in business with the South African apartheid regime. The campaign proved immensely successful, with Nelson Mandela crediting it as one of the most significant factors that led to the fall of apartheid. Divestment has since seen success as a method to morally stigmatize political contributions from the ‘big tobacco’ companies and to condemn human rights abuses propagated by the Sudanese government. In 2011, a campaign was launched to divest institutions from private prison companies.
Fossil Fuel Divestment
Today, divestment has been reborn as one of the most prominent strategies to effectively remediate climate change; it seeks to target carbon emissions at the source to preemptively prevent irreversible climate destruction. More specifically, divestment targets the fossil fuel industry. This focus of the divestment movement can be summed up with three numbers outlined in Bill McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone’s Article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
The first number is two degrees celsius. One of the few issues of climate change that the international community has agreed upon is that anything greater than a two degree increase in global temperatures will have catastrophic consequences. It is important to note that this agreement is by its very nature conservative, as it had to garner international support.
The second number is 565 gigatons of carbon emissions. In 2012, this was the amount of carbon humanity could emit before passing the two degree threshold. It can be understood as the ‘safe’ number of global carbon emissions.
The third and most ominous number is 2,975 gigatons. It describes the amount of carbon already embodied in the proven fossil fuel reserves owned by the coal, oil, and gas industry in 2012. This number can be understood as the quantity of carbon we are already planning to burn.
The fossil fuel industry owns nearly five times the amount of carbon that we can safely burn. It is this ominous understanding upon which divestment is rooted. If we are to ensure a safe and hospitable planet for future generations to enjoy, the fossil fuel industry must be forced to skip out on the profits of burning these reserves, something accountants refer to as stranded assets. Divestment is the strategy that has been developed to create massive public pressure to ensure these companies do not continue business as usual.