Divestment in a Global Perspective

Tue, 19 Nov 2013 15:31:00 CST  — by: Jordan Long, C'14, Sustainability Undergraduate Fellow

divestment3Sustainability undergraduate fellow Jordan Long ('14) is focusing on the feasibility of socially responsible investing at the University. Read about how this issue is gaining momentum globally.


By now, it is almost impossible to have not heard of the movement to divest from fossil fuels sweeping college campuses across the United States. Over 100 schools have groups dedicated to ushering in responsible investment, and their work has spurred a tidal wave of action and interest across governments, pension funds, and in other institutional investors. As easy as the media makes it to believe that this is a new movement centered in the United States, in truth, divestment has been utilized across the globe for a variety of interests all throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and rarely for fossil fuels. The biggest and to date most successful usage of divestment as a strategy has been the divestment from South Africa in the early 1990s. Responding to the outrage of students and activists, schools, private investors and national governments began pulling investment support from the country. While the US was an undoubted leader in the movement and arguably a key player in ending apartheid, leadership in divestment has since fallen upon many other European countries.

Throughout the years nations have begun embracing divestment as a strategy to create unison between the ethics and beliefs of their nation with the nation’s financial practices. Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and France have all shown leadership in divestment from various global events, including the conflict in Sudan, the DRC and Israel. Ireland became one of the first nations to past a resolution to divest from Israel in the mid ninties and has since had numerous government officials take a strong stance against continued investment in fossil fuel companies. Norway in particular has shown incredible leadership beyond even these human rights interests. In 2010, on the heels of a massive global recession, the Norwegian government restructured their investment portfolio to minimize exposure to environmentally egregious companies, arms manufacturers, and companies with histories of human rights violations, including US based companies. The United States, Germany, China and Russia, the most dominate economic powers, have failed to take stances on any of these issues due to the interest of trade relationships.


Specifically regarding fossil fuel divestment, countries have finally begun to marginally creep into the conversation as the looming impact of the environmental crisis becomes more apparent through the incredible natural disasters of the past decade. has been monumental in creating international buzz surrounding the issue. The organization held an international conference in Istanbul this past summer hosting activists and leaders from all over the world. The event was matched with international days of action in hundreds of towns across the world. Unlike previous issues of divestment, the movement towards divestment from fossil fuels has been driven in a significant way by the global south and developing nations. These nations have had historically low carbon emissions due to their lack of industrial development, and yet it is these nations who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising tides threaten island nations and increasingly harsh summers and winters pose serious food security threats to many Africa and Asian nations. Though no nation has managed to divest from any industry entirely, the paradigm is beginning to shift through the exposure they are brining to the issue.

Divestment as a strategy for social change is unique in the way it allows countries and individuals to influence nations with human rights and environmental justice issues to address and change their policies without taking direct action. Though there are many instances in which direct market impact is unlikely, divestment is a strategy that hinges not merely on market forces but on the human impact. By organizing around a well understood concept, the market, activists are able to center the argument in a vernacular that reaches people of all ethnicities, religions and nationalities.

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