Fossil fuel divestment and the re-birth of activism

Annabel O’Rourke looks at the driving forces behind the success of fossil fuel divestment in Ireland, which has grown from worldwide initiatives and college-focused campaigns

Fossil Free in Ireland

“Fossil Free is, in fact, an international activist group that is promoting worldwide divestment from fossil fuels.”

As liberals anxiously watch the world they so carefully constructed fall into the hands of those who wield the weapon of post-truth politics, a stark reality and a forever-changed political landscape is something we must all face. Climate change denial is very much on the agenda of the majority of these populist regimes: in the US, Donald Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has filed 14 lawsuits against it and has been quoted as stating that “what they do is a disgrace”. That being said, all is not lost. On the 29th of January, the environment sighed with relief as Ireland became the first country in the world to take a significant stance on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. The Dáil, by majority vote, has enabled the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill to progress to the committee stage. If the bill is passed, which will likely be the case, Ireland will become the first country to prohibit public money from being invested in the fossil fuel industry. The passing of this bill could be an important step towards the EU, as a whole, moving towards divestment.

The overall success of the Fossil Free Campaign in Ireland has been considerable. In Trinity alone, one would be hard-pressed to find a student who had not a least heard the phrase “Fossil Free” mentioned, even if its exact meaning or significance had not yet been fully grasped. This is largely due to the work of Fossil Free TCD, whose 15-month campaign of marches, protests, and petitions reached its pinnacle in December of last year when Trinity confirmed that it would divest from fossil fuels. It is, however, very important to understand the specific aims of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, which are often misunderstood and misrepresented by its opponents. Fossil Free is, in fact, an international activist group that is promoting worldwide divestment from fossil fuels; this means divestment from any companies that extract finite resources such as coal and gas. The movement began in earnest in 2012, and was particularly led by students in American universities.

Now, several years later, the campaign has gained much traction across the world, which has led to many vocal critiques and active discussions on the benefits of fossil fuel divestment. There are two main schools of thought: some groups believe that remaining invested in the industry will allow for engagement with its leaders, which will both place pressure on these companies to reform and encourage them to invest in clean energies. The other side believe that fossil fuels need to stop being extracted as soon as possible, with some activists campaigning under the slogan “keep it in the ground”. The former argument holds some merit; many fossil fuel companies such as Shell have made huge investments in green energy businesses in recent years. It is, however, unclear if this is due to a sense of ethical obligation or simply a practical business plan. In the wake of the Paris Climate Conference Agreement, businesses face an uncertain regulatory future, and investing in renewable energies is a sensible long-term strategy. On top of this, decreasing oil prices encourage the diversification of investments.

The Aims and Origins of Fossil Free’s divestment

“Though Ireland is the first country to come close to divesting nationally, the total amount committed to being divested currently stands at approximately $5.44 trillion worldwide.”

Activists campaigning to keep the world’s remaining fossil fuel deposits untouched, on the other hand, feel this can only be achieved through government intervention. These fossil fuel companies are, by definition, profit-seeking and there is little currently to prevent them from continuing to extract these finite resources. Ultimately, the Fossil Free Divestment Campaign wishes to follow in the footsteps of previous divestment movements, including the hugely successful divestment campaign against South Africa’s apartheid state in the 1960s. The aim of Fossil Free’s divestment is threefold: they wish to stigmatise fossil fuel companies and their activities, therefore reducing their influence on environmental policy; they want to pressure governments into enacting much stricter climate policies, such as carbon taxes; and they wish to pressure fossil fuel companies to reform, leaving most of their fossil fuel reserves untapped.

The world’s activist population does seem to greatly support the Fossil Free Campaign, and views it as an essential element in the fight against climate change. Though Ireland is the first country to come close to divesting nationally, the total amount committed to being divested currently stands at approximately $5.44 trillion worldwide. Divestment movements have often thrived in universities, and currently educational institutions represent 15% of the total amount divested. These universities are spread across the world and are based in countries such as the UK, South Africa and New Zealand. Growing pressure to divest is now also coming from both philanthropic and faith-based organisations which together make up nearly half of committed divestments. On top of this, prominent figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and renowned environmentalist Naomi Klein have openly advocated for divestment:

“We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet […] We must stop climate change. And we can, if we use the tactics that worked in South Africa against the worst carbon emitters.  People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2014

Divestment in Europe

The need for a reawakening of activist sentiments in Europe has come to the forefront in recent times, particularly in relation to the environment. Climate change is of huge concern and an ever-more globalised world makes it harder to stem this negative process. The former American–EU trade agreement (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) sparked widespread protests, particularly in mainland Europe, due to concerns over its negative environmental impact. The most influential factor in ensuring countries do right by both their citizens and the environment seems to be the citizens themselves and their active engagement. Oxford was the first city council in the UK to divest from fossil fuels in response to actions by its local Fossil Free movement and its dedicated councillors. In Ireland, the divestment movement was also further supported by the charity organisation Trócaire. The next country that appears to be on the path to full divestment is Sweden, whose Government has established the Fossil Free Initiative, encouraging enterprises, municipalities, and other organisations to work together in the name of the environment.

In a world that continues to feel like it is quickly slipping into an abyss devoid of free thought and the advice of experts, most recently highlighted by Trump’s gag order on scientists’ freedom to discuss contentious issues such as climate change, the need for this type of activism is ever more defined. The EU must now act as the bastion of the free world with Merkel as its leader. One hopes that we Europeans can continue to make our mark on government policy and ensure the protection of the environment, both for ourselves and for future generations.

Eat. Sleep. Protest. Repeat.


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