Protesters in Melbourne (Credit: Flickr/Takver)

A new movement to convince colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies that own the majority of global carbon reserves has taken off across the nation. The inspiration for this wave of activism originated in a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben last summer. Coordinated by, divestment is spreading like wildfire. With cities, religious groups, individuals, and 210 campuses already involved, divestment has brought climate change to the forefront of local and national dialogues.

I became an environmental activist at the age of twelve, and my commitment has never wavered. Still, I have been frustrated by fragmentation and insularity within the environmental movement. Now as a student leader of Divest Harvard, I have seen how divestment is engaging more students than any similar campaign in the past twenty years. Why is it so successful?

Today, people live in a cloud of mistrust. Only 6 percent of Americans claim much confidence in Congress, 7 percent in Wall Street, 13 percent in big companies, and 19 percent in the White House. Individuals withdraw into personal social networks and communities to shield themselves from institutions of which they’ve grown skeptical. Past environmental campaigns focused mostly on changes that target those very institutions in which people have lost faith. They were exhorted to pressure politicians to “vote climate” or to use their consumer power to curb large corporations like Exxon. Such campaigns required persuading people to set aside their mistrust. It was always an uphill road.

Divestment has opened up the climate movement to many new participants because it has found a way to bypass mistrust and hopelessness while forging a more inviting road to optimism and concrete action.

Here’s how:

The divestment movement effectively creates a sense of “us” by welcoming everyone: the only qualification needed is to be a member of the planet. This new vision unites self-interest and collective interest: each person’s fate is tied to the fate of all. Everyone must come together and make the same demands. Divestment builds on this awareness and provides a platform for social cohesion as global warming’s effects—droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes—threaten lives and property.

The divestment movement has not only helped more people understand that they’re all in the same boat, it has also highlighted the naked facts about the fossil fuel industry. The divestment movement illuminates the fossil fuel industry’s deeply anti-social practices as the basis upon which its current wealth is founded. The industry insists on prioritizing private profit above human survival. Everyone is in the same boat, but the fossil fuel industry is on course to sink us all. That makes it “us” against “them” in this fight.

The divestment movement exposes the coercive tactics of the fossil fuel industry and challenges its free market mythology.  Critics say that divestment isn’t necessary if individual consumers simply use their buying power to choose to not purchase fossil fuels. But the divestment movement confronts that sophistry, revealing how the fossil fuel industry coerces consumers into using carbon-based energy.

This coercion is set into motion by the fact that the major companies hold 2,795 Gigatons of carbon in their reserves. Their stock prices are high, in part, because they’re planning to burn all of it. Yet only 565 Gigatons can be burned in order for the planet to remain below 2 degrees of global warming—the upper limit set by the UN as safe for human habitation. Therefore the science dictates that the most powerful industry in the world should keep 80 percent of its reserves in the ground, which would destroy current valuations and force the industry to adopt a fundamentally different business model. The industry has been determined to avoid this scenario, resorting instead to targeting elected officials who support climate legislation and pouring millions of dollars into political lobbying, spending twenty times more than the clean-energy lobby.

Profits means lobbyists, and the fossil fuel lobby means subsidies. Fossil fuel companies received $72 billion in federal subsidies from 2002 to 2008—six times the funding that went to renewable energy. The renewable energy industry has been forced to compete in the shadow of this unfair advantage. This amounts to de facto coercion of consumers, as most people have no alternative but to use carbon-based products in an energy market that fails to foster fair competition.

The industry also misleads the public by underwriting a massive communications campaign to undermine the science of climate change. Around 97 percent of climate scientists confirm anthropogenic global warming. Yet only 44 percent of Americans believe that most scientists agree the earth’s atmosphere is warming at an unprecedented rate, and 36 percent say that there is disagreement among scientists. The gap in the data is mostly due to the influence of paid climate change deniers. The Koch Brothers and other wealthy donors give millions of dollars to shadowy organizations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which then give that money to entities like the Heartland Institute—an extreme right-wing think tank that propagates anti-science and anti-global warming commentary.

The new sense of “us” against “them” gathers strength and moral purpose as the movement raises awareness of how society has been coerced. But the divestment movement also critically provides a strategy for bypassing the institutions that people are most cynical about, especially Congress. Instead of trying to effect change through an institution that most regard as hopeless, divestment asks people to use their own social networks and communities of interest as the platform for collective action. Suddenly the ability to influence the fossil fuel industry seems both plausible and feasible because success does not depend upon hitting the same old brick wall of the political system. People can take matters into their own hands and bring the fight directly to the fossil fuel industry in the form of pressure on its share price, its leaders, and its business model. The movement provides a way for people to declare not merely that the emperor has no clothes but that he is a pariah, a rogue, and an outcast, recklessly indifferent to humanity’s interests and life as we know it.

The divestment movement has enabled students and citizens around the country to realize that it is time to take a stand together on climate change.  It’s opened people’s eyes to the illegitimacy of the opposition’s power. And most importantly, it’s provided a concrete strategy that doesn’t ask individuals to place their faith in institutions that they do not trust.

To build on the momentum, environmental leaders need to understand the basis for the movement’s new success and continue to build on the new spirit of inclusion and hope. The challenge will be to apply relentlessly these lessons to future campaigns. As Bill McKibben said: “Climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The only thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.”