In Defense of Divestment

What is fossil fuel divestment?

It is an international network of campaigns calling on powerful institutions to sell any stocks/bonds they hold in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Many colleges, governments, and foundations have already divested: my own Carleton College has not.

Why might an institution want to divest?

ExMIt was recently unearthed that as early as 1977, ExxonMobil– the world’s largest oil and gas company– knew that their product was causing global temperature rise that could prove catastrophic. Rather than change their business model, they spent tens-of-millions of dollars propagating misinformation, obstructing political action, and cultivating denial across the globe.1

The other major players have all done the same: deny, distract, and drill baby drill.

While many of these companies have changed their tone, they have not changed their actions. “For well over a decade, several of the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift to renewable energy,” writes Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, “but according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to ‘renewable and alternative energy ventures.’”2 The rest went to shareholders, uber-rich executives, climate denial lobby groups, and the pursuit of ever-more-elusive oil, gas, and coal.

For decades, fossil fuel companies have unequivocally failed to recognize and respond to the threat their business creates. Moreover, they have deliberately suppressed localized and renewable energy models3 and disproportionately targeted communities of poor people and people-of-color as the sites of pollution-generating wells, refineries, and pipelines.4

To divest is to acknowledge the myriad offenses of fossil fuel companies and emphatically declare “We can no longer, in good conscious, make the profits of fossil fuel companies our own.” It’s a powerful symbolic gesture gaining traction across the world. But it is often misunderstood.

What do opponents say?

Some individuals claim divestment is insignificant, because selling your stock to someone else doesn’t actually hurt the fossil fuel industry. Some institutions insist divestment is too risky, for any consequent losses they incur will inhibit their ability to fulfil their goals. The complaint I hear the most is that it is hypocritical to denounce fossil fuel companies while continuing to use fossil fuels, and that it would be more productive to simply reduce fossil fuel use.

As the renowned MIT professor Noam Chomski recently remarked on the subject “I know the counter arguments. And I think we can accept the counter arguments as accurate… but the problem is they’re irrelevant.”


True: Divestment causes no immediate fiscal harm to fossil fuel companies. But: That is not the point. The point is to educate people– to make them ask why you would divest, and then make them understand.

An orange square is often worn to signal support for the divestment movement

True: Divesting from fossil fuels is a little risky and potentially costly (though not necessarily!) But: What message does it send when an institution like Carleton declares that the only way to ensure its fiscal stability is through the fossil fuel industry? This claim is not only false but also deeply demoralizing! It plainly tells environmentally-minded students that will soon have to secure their own fiscal stability “Green industries cannot support you.”

And beyond that, it also sends a message to everyone that our obligation to take moral action is abrogated by risky, costly, or inconvenient circumstances– that safety and comfort take precedent over moral conviction.

True: There is some hypocrisy in denouncing fossil fuel companies while continuing to use their product. But: Resolving our personal hypocrites does not create systemic change.5 It would be wonderful if Carleton College stopped using fossil fuels, but we need everyone to stop using fossil fuels. And that is not going to happen while fossil fuels companies continue to lobby congress and propagate misinformation unabated. Of course we should strive to reduce our fossil fuel use, but we must simultaneously recognize and condemn the powers that work to make fossil fuels our only choice. These tasks are not exclusionary. We can and must do both!

Furthermore, I believe a more glaring hypocrisy occurs when an institution claims to prioritize climate change, while linking its financial stability to that of fossil fuel companies! Carleton’s Climate Action Plan proudly points to the school’s wind turbines and carbon-reduction goals as evidence of “dedication to environmental stewardship.” Yet the school remains tied to the fossil fuel industry in such a way that when oil companies thrive, it thrives, and when oil companies suffer, it suffers. Does that not call into question the sincerity of Carleton’s “dedication to environmental stewardship”?

Finally, I want to address the argument that reputable institutions like Carleton mustn’t dabble in “political matters.”

First of all, if divestment is political, surely investment is as well. But secondly, climate change is not merely a political issue. It’s a humanitarian and ecological crisis. It is record heat, and fire, and flooding, and drought. It is mass extinction, across the ocean and the land. It is millions of people dropping into a state of food insecurity. It is island nations being lost, and coastal cities being destroyed. It is instability and violence. And everywhere it hits, it is poor people getting hit the hardest.

There are some political issues that are too important to sit out.



  1. Read The New Yorker’s “What Exxon Knew About Climate Change”
  2. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014), 96.
  3. See “Who Killed the Electric Car” and “Merchants of Doubt”
  4. See: “Desperate Fossil Fuel Interests Seek to Undermine Clean Energy Choices in Communities of Color” and “People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change.”
  5. Read: “We have met the wrong enemy.”

One thought on “In Defense of Divestment

  1. For reference, divestment is absolutely guaranteed to be a profitable activity at this point. I am a professional investor, as well as a Carleton alum. I divested my personal portfolio around 2008 — possibly a bit early, but it’s looking like prescient timing right now. Coal, oil, and gas companies have become financial losers. Oil companies are burning money on “exploration” without finding anything. Electric cars are already cheaper to operate than gas cars even at current low oil prices. Coal companies are practically giving away the coal at the minehead, and after transportation costs, at the power plant it’s still too expensive to burn (cheaper to use wind or gas power). Natural gas companies are up to their ears in debt and can’t make a profit unless natural gas goes up to $8 or more. Meanwhile solar and wind get cheaper and cheaper.

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