Last year provided a preview of the new normal. As once-in-a-lifetime severe weather became regular occurrences, as rising sea levels threatened our most vulnerable communities, and as fires raged across continents, our generation got a glimpse of the world we will inherit. Meanwhile, many in power stood behind the industry responsible for this destruction.
Not every injustice inspires hundreds of people to risk arrest. Ending a system that favors short-term profit over our futures, however, is one of them. On November 23, we were among the students who disrupted the Harvard-Yale football game, with supporters pouring onto the field to demand real climate action from our universities. It was the culmination of months of planning by Divest Harvard and our friends at the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, made necessary by years of inaction by our institutions. We took the field to call on Harvard to commit to disclose, divest, and reinvest its fossil fuel holdings by Earth Day 2020—a decade before the IPCC’s deadline for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—because we can’t afford to wait any longer.
That’s why our call for divestment extends beyond our universities; it also extends to our elected officials. As the 2020 presidential election nears, whether candidates support fossil fuel divestment represents a critical litmus test for their commitment to serious climate action and climate justice.
Many of our elected officials agree that we need to act on climate change right now. But there are two different paths we can take. On the first path, politicians may claim that the system itself is not broken: Through surface-level regulations, engagement with industry, and consumers’ being pushed to make more sustainable decisions in the grocery aisle, the free market will move toward halting climate catastrophe. It’s a seductive idea, but one that fundamentally misses the core driver of the climate crisis: an economic system whose only mandate is short-term shareholder wealth maximization. With this as the norm, it’s no wonder that global carbon emissions continue to increase even as public awareness of the climate emergency grows. The reality is that no amount of regulation can reshape an industry like the fossil fuel industry whose core business model is predicated on ever-growing extraction. No amount of greenwashing can absolve the years spent profiting off injustice. And no consumer choice can compensate for a system that denies us a real alternative.
That’s why we need a second path—a fundamental shift in how we think about markets and morals. This shift begins with an acknowledgement that taking on the climate crisis requires taking on the industry that created it. By including fossil fuel divestment in their policy platforms, candidates prove their willingness to move beyond stopgap solutions. They demonstrate the courage necessary to strike at the roots of the climate crisis.
The industry has proven that it is no ally in the fight to mitigate climate change’s worst effects. For decades, fossil fuel companies have sown climate skepticism, poured millions into lobbying against bold climate policy, and degraded our planet and our communities. Since 1988, a mere 100 companies have contributed 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This reality makes us wonder: When politicians fight for fossil fuel interests in the name of the people they represent, whom are they really fighting for?
A commitment to divestment also signifies a commitment to transformative justice. The other dimension of divestment is reinvestment in a just and sustainable future. If we want to take on the climate crisis, we need to rapidly shift capital away from the model of business at the crisis’s core and into a clean-energy economy that uplifts the communities who disproportionately suffer the effects of climate change. We need to radically change business as usual. And we need bold leadership to make that happen.
Plus, divestment works. Fossil fuels are a financially in addition to morally tenuous investment. That’s why funds worth a total of almost $12 trillion have committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry worldwide, and why companies like Shell have acknowledged the movement as a threat. Right now, investors have a chance to move their money while showing climate leadership and financial prudence.
There are clear ways for our leaders to take action. The Thrift Savings Plan, the main retirement fund for federal employees, currently oversees some $559 billion in assets—if the federal government used its authority to divest, it would have a major impact. Americans currently subsidize fossil fuel companies to the tune of $20 billion a year—a leader who agrees to cut ties with these corporations saves taxpayers hard-earned money. Companies like Exxon Mobil are among the largest recipients of federal contracts—a president who redirects contracts towards just and sustainable energy production ensures that American innovation can triumph.
Of course, divestment is only one part of the greater struggle for a just society. Amid a climate emergency, we must demand that our elected officials take action in every way possible, including by taking the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, supporting a Green New Deal, and embracing the questions of racial and economic justice that are integral to any climate action. Already, one presidential candidate explicitly includes federal divestment in his platform, and three current (plus two former) 2020 presidential candidates have supported our November 23 action. But this support is far from enough. Fossil fuel divestment should be a non-partisan demand of elected officials at every level of government, from City Hall to Capitol Hill.
We face a choice as we enter this new decade. Perhaps our institutions will just continue down the path that has failed us at every step of the way. But as youth climate movements reshape the political landscape, we have hope that a new era is dawning—and we’ll be taking that hope with us to the ballot box. We’re asking candidates, especially those seeking our nation’s highest office, to show that they stand with us. We’re asking those who believe in climate action and climate justice to join us in disrupting an unsustainable and unethical system. We’re asking them to speak up at every town hall, debate, and meeting—to make divestment part of their policy platforms, for the sake of all of our futures.