Here’s How College Students Helped Drive $40T in Divestment From the Fossil Fuel Industry

In 2023, environmental activists secured more than 1,600 commitments to divest from fossil fuels. BestColleges spoke with Stand.earth's Amy Gray to learn how college students contributed to the milestone.
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Published on December 15, 2023
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  • Stand.earth, an advocacy organization managing the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database, announced the milestone on Dec. 15.
  • Educational institutions make up 16.2% of worldwide fossil fuel divestment commitments.
  • Organizations Campus Climate Network and Fossil Free Careers are poised to gain more ground in 2024.

As of this month, over 1,600 institutions have committed to divest from fossil fuels, representing over $40 trillion in assets. Grassroots student efforts to create sustainable universities were critical in reaching that milestone.

Stand.earth, an advocacy organization managing the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database, announced the milestone on Dec. 15.

Educational institutions make up 16.2% of worldwide divestment commitments tracked in the database; New York University divested from fossil fuels this year, becoming the largest U.S. institution to do so in 2023. Other major universities that divested from fossil fuels include Harvard, Princeton, and the California State University System.

Fossil fuel divestment is the act of de-investing from the fossil fuel industry, namely companies that profit from the extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas. To better understand how students pushed their universities to divest from fossil fuels and contributed to the $40 trillion milestone, BestColleges connected with Amy Gray, associate director of climate finance at Stand.earth.

I think there's a shift happening, especially in higher education, where we're preparing our young people to organize for the world that they want, Gray told BestColleges. This is a big, big shift from organizing of the past, where ... a lot of the climate movement was older, retired white folks who needed something to do. ... Now it's all of us.

She said campus organizing around divestment leveled up in 2023 with student-led organizations like Campus Climate Network (CCN), formerly Fossil Free Research, and People and Planet, the largest student environmental and social justice network in the U.K., providing university-level support.

(Student-led organizations) are such a powerful tool to challenge the status quo and pressure our institutions, Gray told BestColleges. You're seeing legal complaints filed, arguing that investing in coal, oil, and gas violates the schools' obligations as nonprofits to prioritize the public interest.

Students are also conducting research to show how the fossil fuel industry leveraged corporate windfalls to fund donations and gain influence across higher education.

Last February, a report by CCN and Data for Progress found that the fossil fuel industry transferred at least $677 million to 27 universities to fund research, including climate research. Of those institutions, 10 had divested their endowments from fossil fuel companies.

One of the student leaders on that research was Jake Lowe, a 2022 George Washington University graduate. He previously told BestColleges that he hopes U.S. universities claiming to be climate leaders can back up their claims with research policies like those at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Germany.

VU Amsterdam last April announced that it would no longer enter new research collaborations with companies that cannot commit to the Paris Climate Agreement. So far, Princeton has the most comprehensive fossil fuel dissociation policy.

Gray emphasized that the student-led movement isn't only focused on investments and funding. ... We don't want these people on our campuses, she said. We don't want Exxon influencing our science departments. We don't want Shell coming in with their money, especially the hiring fairs they do ... and selling lies to these kids by throwing money in their direction.

Notable institutions who have committed to divesting from fossil fuels.
Notable institutions who have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. These include the Church of England, University of Oxford, Axa insurance, New York University, ABP Asset Management, National Academy of Medicine, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, New York City pension funds, the Vatican, and La Banque Postale. In total, more than 1,600 institutions have committed to fossil fuel divestment. Learn more at DivestmentDatabase.org. Courtesy of Stand.earth

Goals and Challenges for the Movement Entering 2024

Gray said she'd like to see educational institutions shoot up to 20% of divestment commitments in 2024 and see the total number of institutional divestment commitments double in the next 2-3 years. She'd also love to see college departments refuse fossil fuel money for research and invest in sustainable solutions.

Gray said the largest challenge to the divestment movement is the anti-Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) movement within far-right political spaces. The anti-ESG movement claims that divesting is simply woke investing.

It's two words: woke investing. And suddenly, the mob is there, Gray said. And so I think that's been one of the challenges: combating that rhetoric coming out of that party.