Divestment from fossil fuels: Tips for Activists

Divestment is the opposite of investment: you can think of it like “uninvesting.”

To divest from fossil fuels means to sell all the oil and gas company stocks in your investment portfolio (or your university’s portfolio, or your faith community’s portfolio, or your city’s portfolio…). For a deeper explanation of what it is, see What is Divestment from Fossil Fuels?  Here I'm going to presume you understand what it is, and discuss what to do about it as an activist within your community or organization.

The process of divesting from fossil fuels follows a certain timeline. And where an organization is on this timeline determines the type of action, talking points, and answers that activists need to use. I break the timeline down into the Consideration phase, the Declaration, and the Implementation phase.

 

 

 

 

At first, an organization is in what I call Consideration phase. During this time, the decisionmakers are gaining awareness of the fossil fuels problem, and they're observing how much their constituents or membership or customer base care about the divestment issue -- basically the decisionmakers are deciding whether to act. They're weighing whether they can get away with inaction, and simply maintain the status quo.

The target organization may use euphemisms like "We have voted to study divestment." Don't be fooled -- they're still in the Consideration phase. They haven't yet made any real commitment to concrete action.

The Declaration is the turning point.  It is a formal statement by the organization that they are definitely planning to leave fossil fuels behind, abandon their investments in oil/gas/coal, and to make a move into the new future. This usually involves some vote of the organization's governing body.

The Declaration is not however, divestment itself. "Divestment" is a much longer process. You'll see public announcements by many universities, churches, foundations, and other organizations saying that they "have divested from fossil fuels." More accurately, they have made a Declaration to do so, and are now entering the Implementation phase.

Implementation is a long process. It includes steps like analyzing the organization's portfolio to see what might be hiding in there. Making a timeline for selling off the undesirable stocks. Getting their investment advisors involved, and getting recommendations as to how to move their money, and what to move it into. And eventually, going through a long and steady process of selling and reinvesting. In total, it may take years.

Meanwhile, the question arises, what to invest those moneys into? We activists hardly want to recommend "out of the frying pan and into the fire" by having them pour those funds into something equally abhorrent!

What investments exist out there that can have similar return on investment (a pension fund or endowment might be legally bound to maintain this), but are supportive of the Transition, building the new post-carbon future which we know needs to be birthed? (We have been working on answers)

How to take action during the Consideration phase

During the Consideration phase, activists are in "campaigning" mode. Activists need to use passionate and moral arguments. You need to drag out all the videos about the devastation that climate change is wreaking on the environment and on people.

For some organizations, depending on their mission, focusing on the "people impacts" -- lives lost, health repercussions, livelihoods lost, political upheaval from climate change -- may be a more effective argument than impacts on the planet, climate, ice, soils, water, etc.

Always keep in mind that Divestment is really a political and social statement, and is primarily about taking back power from the fossil fuels industry. Thus in the Consideration phase it is important to steer conversations away from financial questions and "return on investment."  Keep them focused on morals, and their image, and social impact.

During the Consideration phase, activists also need to rally lots and lots of people inside the target organization.  Get those passionate and moral arguments in front of the organization's membership or constituents.  Use social media, rallies, picketting, and other activist tools to get the organization's membership clammoring for the change.

Consideration phase talking points include:

  • people impacts and/or environmental impacts;
  • Divestment is a political and social statement about the direction of humanity's future, more than a financial decision;
  • stigmatizing the Carbon Underground 200;
  • is fossil fuels a morally acceptable industry to be associated with?
  • which of the organization's competitors or peers are divesting;
  • how divestment campaigns worked in other situations (like apartheid, human trafficking; tobacco)
  • loss of face: how bad the target organization will look if it becomes known that they decided NOT to divest, voted "no" when asked to divest.

There are lots and lots of materials online to support you during the Consideration phase.  (list of our favorite divestment resources) Try looking for other organizations which are similar to your target organiztion (for instance if you're working with a university, seek materials that activists used to convince other universities).

How to take action in support of the Declaration

The best way to support the Declaration, is to have pre-written text already ready and waiting for your target organization to edit and approve. The best way to go about this is to review the Declarations made by similar organizations (if you're working with a church, what have other churches in that denomination written?), and merge some of the best clauses you find, into a single draft Declaration document.

You, the activist, should also take a look at a few organizations which are NOT similar, so that you can see if there are points you need to pick up.  Basically, you're cross-checking the other organizations in your industry.

Most Declarations include some reference to which stocks should be purged.  The Carbon Underground 200 is a list that is maintained and is easy to refer to, but it is not the only list.  You might state whether mutual funds are to be purged, or not.

A good Declaration gives a timeline over which the Implementation is to be achieved.   That way the organization's decisionmakers can't drag their feet and not achieve divestment til the year 2100!

You may consider our 7 Aspects to Divest and Reinvest as you draft your Declaration.  For instance reminding the organization to take a look at their bank accounts, not just stocks.  And take action in their messaging and networking, not just their financial affairs.

How to take action during the Implementation phase

One of the first things an activist can help with during implementation is to help the organization set their timeline:  help them understand that this process is admittedly complex, but there are some pretty clear steps to it, and thedecisionmakers can (and should) set expectation dates for these steps to be achieved. Some of those clear steps include:

  • examine the organization's portfolio and see what holdings it already has;
  • deciding specifically what "divestment" will mean, particularly if the Declaration isn't fully clear on this (you might consider our 7 Aspects to Divest and Reinvest);
  • notifying the organization's professional investment advisors of intent to divest;
  • making a list of what should be purged, and setting dates for this to happen;
  • making a list of other actions to be taken, together with target dates (might include breaking up with big banks, messaging to constituents and subsidiaries, etc.)
  • press releases to tell the world what the organization is doing;
  • accountability: assigning who to report back to, and giving that person enforcement power;
  • identifying Reinvest targets, and finding out what it takes to move into them.

Another very important role of activists during Implementation is to keep the process rolling along.  Don't allow the organization to get mired down in the complexity and the administration.  Keep them on track, and keep rallying internal forces (internal to the target organization) to continue the pressure to see this process through.

With our background understanding of the Transition Movement and the Triple Crisis, we have to guide the reinvestment process, not just toward anything in the stock market, but toward particular things which we know will bring alive the new post-carbon future.  That is the core of what we are working on.  We have broken it down in to 7 Aspects of Divest and Reinvest.

Peter Rood and I are currently writing a white paper for the Implementation phase for Peter's church diocese.  If you want a copy of it when we are done, it will be posted online in pdf via our Divestment Resources page.

Joanne Poyourow is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers in Los Angeles.  In their 10 years of operations the Change-Makers have done many things including building two community gardens, and initiating Transition ideas in many areas of Southern California.  Follow Joanne's blog at www.Change-Making.com or find her on social media @ecmjoanne

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