What Is Fossil Fuel Divestment? Q&A With Stand.earth’s Lindsay Meiman

Fossil fuel divestment is an actionable way for institutions to combat climate change by removing investments in fossil fuels. Anyone can participate through protest and outreach to institutions.
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As coverage of the climate crisis and the effects of climate change grow, students around the country are using their voices to vote, protest, and advocate for sustainable practices from their universities and large corporations.

One way college students are effecting change is through fossil fuel divestment campaigns, which call on institutions to remove any investments in big fossil fuel companies like BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

Sometimes these fossil fuel companies sponsor programs for universities; other times, universities invest their endowments in fossil fuels. Eliminating these practices can help universities live up to their sustainability commitments.

BestColleges spoke with Lindsay Meiman of Stand.earth to learn more about where the idea of fossil fuel divestment comes from, its goals, and how to get involved.

Portrait of Lindsay Meiman

Lindsay Meiman

Lindsay Meiman is the media director for Stand.earth's climate finance program and previously worked for seven years at 350.org. Stand.earth is an advocacy organization that brings people together to demand that corporations and governments put people and the environment first. She studied economics and environmental studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Her passion to challenge environmental institutional status quos catalyzed during her experience with Superstorm Sandy and her work in college with the Bethlehem-area school district. Her Jewish faith also helped her understand that humans are integral to, not separate from, the environment.

Where Does the Idea of Fossil Fuel Divestment Come From?

Fossil fuel divestment comes from the theory of change that if it's wrong to wreck the planet, it's wrong to profit from that wreckage.

What Is Fossil Fuel Divestment Trying to Accomplish?

Fossil fuel divestment is a tool in a toolbox. It is about getting to the root of the problem and looking at fossil fuel companies primarily responsible for the climate crisis. My work has focused on moving institutions across all sectors, including the financial industry, off fossil fuels.

But the intention wasn't initially to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. We know that we need to support the transition and support former fossil fuel workers — that is part of economic and climate justice.

It is removing the social license for fossil fuel companies to continue to operate and extract as if their business model was not inherently set to burn and flood our planet. It is not hyperbole to say that.

It's not a solution to the climate crisis to have an ExxonMobil that is just running on 100% renewable energy. What we need is energy that is owned and operated by communities. Acting on the climate crisis is an opportunity to rebuild what it looks like to have energy access.

Putting that decision-making in the hands of the people is such a crucial step. When it comes to the climate crisis, this is about humanity. The climate crisis isn't just about melting ice caps. It is about people's day-to-day lives and how we safely move about the world.

How Have Colleges and Universities Affected the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement?

College and university divestment is so crucial. It took inspiration from the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, where in the 1970s, students were mobilizing across their campuses demanding that their university endowments no longer prop up apartheid in South Africa.

Of course, people of all ages attend colleges and universities, but especially when we're talking about students and young people – what kind of future are colleges and universities preparing their students for when they're investing billions in climate-destroying fossil fuels?

Fossil fuel divestment is a tangible way for these institutions to act on their missions and values.

To date, there are over 1,550 institutions representing $40 trillion in assets committed to some level of divestment. For perspective: $40 trillion represents just half of the world's total GDP. Colleges and universities are more than 15% of that total number. That's a huge influence; that's a huge sector of institutions preparing young people for their futures, aligning their investments with their values.

And we're not just talking about liberal arts schools in the U.S. People power gets the goods. Because of students, alumni, and communities organizing, this includes institutions like Harvard, Cornell, and the entire California and Massachusetts university systems. These are institutions that have huge influence and ripple effects globally.

What Are Other Actionable Ways Universities Can Fight the Climate Crisis?

One place to start is refusing donations from Big Oil. Don't let Chevron sponsor your new science lab, or don't let Shell pay for a curriculum, which they do even at the elementary-school level. You could go as far as disinvite Exxon from your recruitment fairs.

Colleges and universities can also shift to running on renewable energy.

The Inflation Reduction Act that recently passed the U.S. Congress makes this more accessible than ever. Things like cooling and heating pumps that take geothermal energy and run electricity off that, and solar energy. The bill is far from perfect, but it helps make renewables more accessible, and they're now more cost-effective than fossil fuels.

It's also crucial to center social justice, including engaging with the community off campus.

For example, connecting students and off-campus communities around climate mitigation. How would the university respond and support the broader community if something — knock on wood — like Superstorm Sandy hits? How are they protecting the broader community?

What Changes in Mindset Have You Witnessed About Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Divestment Since You Began Your Career?

About 10 years ago, when I told people I worked for a climate organization, they'd need more of an explanation. The average person understands now; climate is front of mind for so many people.

More than ever, young people don't want to work for fossil fuel companies or banks financing billions of dollars in fossil fuels. They don't want to work for institutions that are not aligned with a livable future.

I think accountability and understanding who is responsible have massively shifted. There is also more understanding that Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities of color who are hit first and worst by climate impacts are also the ones leading on real solutions.

Why Is It Important to Divest These Companies Even if They Say They Promote Sustainability?

Exxon knew all there was to know about climate change as far back as the 1950s. Their own scientists warned company executives about the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and burning causing climate catastrophe.

Instead of heeding these warnings, Exxon executives embarked on a decades-long and ongoing campaign of delay and denial.

We know this isn't just Exxon. Big Oil and gas companies started raising the height of their oil rigs to anticipate sea level rise, and embarking on public relations campaigns to make people also think about climate action as an individual thing.

And seeing this delay playbook evolve over time, starting with: "I'm not a scientist" to "Climate change is real, but it needs to be dealt with globally, not at this scale," to "Fossil fuels are part of the solution," and now greenwashing, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary added to its dictionary this year.

There's a dictionary-official definition for when public-facing fossil fuel companies, banks, and corporations say they are acting on climate while funding or enabling the crisis. It's greenwashing.

Is Divesting and Reinvesting Economically Sustainable?

The broader fossil fuel divestment movement started on a handful of U.S. college campuses and is now a mainstream financial tactic, taken even by the world's largest pension fund, and the longest-term investors.

Fossil fuel companies are giving their money back to their shareholders rather than using it to extract or run more fossil fuel projects because they don't want people to let go of the stock. They're grasping at straws, but the fact remains: in the long-term, they're not profitable, and we need to transition off fossil fuels for any shot at a livable planet.

One example [of sustainable investment] is: In New York City, the pension fund is committed to fossil fuel divestment and went beyond that to also have a reinvestment commitment in climate-safe solutions.

The original commitment was $4 billion, and they've recognized that there's such a higher return on fossil-free portfolios that they've increased the commitment to $7 billion.

Over the last 10 years, fossil-free portfolios and indexes have outperformed those with fossil fuels. So, from an economic standpoint, you get a higher return with fossil-free investment — not to mention protecting our climate and communities.

What Can Individuals Do to Fight the Climate Crisis?

The crisis feels so big, but the best action for people to take is to stop thinking as an individual and join collective action.

Fossil fuel divestment — and joining the climate justice movement — is intended to be a way that anyone anywhere can take action — a tangible way to make an impact and know that they are part of a global movement and not just feel like they're isolated and that their actions don't matter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.