Last updated: July 2015
The first fossil fuel divestment campaign in the US started at Swarthmore College in 2010. The movement snowballed in November 2012, when Bill McKibben and 350.org spread the call for divestment campaigns through a public speaking tour called “Do the Math.”
Keeping a current count of assets being divested is a challenge due to the rapid growth of the movement, the transparency challenges inherent to investment practices, and the diversity of actors divesting, including universities, nonprofits and foundations, pension funds, religious congregations, medical associations, municipal governments, and private individuals and investors.
As of September 2014, according to a report published by Arabella Advisors, over 181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals representing over $50 billion in total assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Arabella Advisors noted that the number of institutional entities divesting doubled from 74 to 181 from January to September in 2014.
The organization Go Fossil Free lists more than 20 American universities that have committed to varying forms of divestment, including Stanford, which pledged to divest direct holdings from 100 coal companies in May 2014 and has an endowment valued at $18.7B. Locally, The New School voted in February to divest its $220M endowment from all fossil fuel holdings and explore reinvestment opportunities into renewable energy.
From May to June alone, the University of Washington system pledged to divest its $2.8B endowment from direct holdings in coal, becoming the largest public university to do so; the University of Hawaii system pledged to divest its $66M endowment from all fossil fuel holdings; Georgetown University pledged to divest its direct holdings from coal; and the Rhode Island School of Design pledged to divest its $330M endowment of its direct holdings in fossil fuel stocks, valued at $6M.
Divestment campaigns are also active at universities across the globe. In October 2014, Glasgow University became the first European university to divest its $27M of fossil fuel holdings; most recently, the University of Oxford pledged not to make future direct investments in coal and oil sands in June. On the frontlines of climate change, the College of the Marshall Islands voted to divest from fossil fuels in December 2014.
On the governmental front, action has ranged from Norway divesting its $890B sovereign wealth fund from companies that rely more than 30% on coal for their revenues (thereby implicating utilities, as well) to the 41 city governments that have pledged to divest (as of March 2015). On July 7, New York State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix W. Ortiz announced the new bill Krueger is sponsoring: the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act (S.5873/A.8011). The bill would require the State Comptroller to divest the Common Retirement Fund (CRF) from coal within one year and from all fossil fuel holdings by 2020. There are divestment bills in the pipeline in other states, including for Massachusetts’ $62.3B pension fund and California’s pension funds.
International financial services firms have taken action as well – in 2013, Norwegian pension fund and insurer Storebrand (with $74B in assets) divested from 19 fossil fuel companies, and French insurance company AXA announced it will divest more than $500M of coal-related assets and reinvest into renewables this past May.
Assets by philanthropic foundations that have pledged to divest represent $5B according to Divest-Invest Philanthropy, a platform calling on foundations to sign onto a commitment letter and begin the processes of divestment and reinvestment in clean energy alternatives. At this time, 103 foundations have become signatories since January 2014. One notable signatory is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, with more than $860M in assets, which pledged to divest from fossil fuels in September 2014.
In light of the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change Laudato si’, the growing number of religious congregations divesting from fossil fuels is seen by some commentators as positioning climate change more strongly as a moral issue. The Vatican itself is considering divestment, but the first to act was the United Church of Christ, which voted to divest from all fossil fuels in stages in 2013. In 2014, the World Council of Churches – which represents half a billion Christians – voted to divest from all fossil fuels. In May, the Church of England announced it had dropped $18M worth of oil sands and thermal coal investments. At the end of this June, the Lutheran World Federation announced a policy of not investing in fossil fuels. The leadership of the Episcopalian Church voted last week to divest $380M of holdings from fossil fuel companies and to instruct parishes and dioceses to start moving funds away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. The neighboring Union Theological Seminary voted to divest their $108.4M endowment from all fossil fuels in 2014. While Christian denominations have been the center of divestment activity so far, there is broad momentum from a spectrum of religious groups calling for a strong COP-21 agreement.
Divestment has also drawn attention from public health, development, and scientific experts. The British Medical Association became the first health organization to divest from all fossil fuels in 2014, and an organization representing more than one million medical students signed a petition calling for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest. They claim fossil fuel investments contradict the Hippocratic Oath. Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP), an association of 2,000 researchers, have issued a statement calling for divestment, as well.
Finally, The Guardian has become a strong voice in the divestment campaign with their “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, calling on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (and the Wellcome Trust) to divest from the Carbon Underground list of top 200 fossil fuel companies. Despite not yet winning the campaign, they have raised serious questions in the United Kingdom; two-thirds of UK survey respondents now view fossil fuel investments as ‘risky.’
Many actors that have made divestment pledges have cited a study by the Stranded Assets Programme at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment completed in 2013. It suggests that the number of campaigns in the fossil fuel divestment movement is growing faster than in any previous divestment campaign, such as the campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.