Guest blog from Jess Grady-Benson, Student and divestment organizer at Pitzer College, Claremont, California – cross-posted from our friends at People and Planet.

I set out in June to reignite my passion for climate activism and to explore a tactic that has recently generated significant excitement and debate: fossil fuel divestment. Currently, over 300 U.S. colleges and universities have initiated campaigns to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry. Many non-academic institutions have joined in as well, including religious communities, pension funds, cities and states. Six colleges, 17 cities, 12 religious institutions, two counties, and six other institutions have committed to divesting in one year, with many others well on their way.

While the campaign has become quite popular, skeptics as well as members of the climate movement have been asking, “how will fossil fuel divestment fight the climate crisis?” So, I created an independent research project to investigate how divestment fits into our growing global movement and to study the potential power of this tactic. I began by exploring the roots of the movement in the U.S., and then traveled to Europe to get the scoop on the growing international buzz about fossil fuel divestment.

Activists gathered at Global Power Shift in Istanbul.

First stop: Istanbul, Turkey for the first-ever Global Power Shift conference. Here I gathered with 500 activists representing 135 countries in trainings, panels, and actions to re-charge the international climate movement. I teamed-up with U.S. divestment organizers, Ali and Becca, to hold a Roots Camp session (a participant-led workshop) to discuss how fossil fuel divestment is being applied worldwide. It was inspiring to hear about the incredible work already happening in Australia and Canada, and the enthusiasm of participants from South Africa, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and the UK. After a sneak peak from Phoebe and Tara of People & Planet, we couldn’t wait to find out more about the plans for divestment in the UK.

After an incredible and overwhelming week in Istanbul, Ali, Becca, and I traveled over the railroad and through the woods to Hogacre Common in Oxford. Completely wind-powered with delicious vegetarian meals and nightly bonfires, this little slice of heaven was our home during the People & Planet Summer Gathering. The week was filled with trainings, ceilidhs, and even a talent show. But, most importantly, People & Planet unveiled their new campaign: Fossil Free UK. After a successful 10-year Go Green campaign, students are ready to confront the power and cut university ties from the fossil fuel industry.

Students at the People & Planet Summer Gathering

We shared stories of our experiences fighting for fossil fuel divestment at American universities and discussed the many ways in which divestment can be adapted to a UK university context. It was incredible to connect with organizers in the Netherlands who began the first European divestment campaign this past year. Nick and Flick from University of Edinburgh are doing amazing work with their Ethical Investment Campaign,which focuses not only on fossil fuel divestment but also ethical reinvestment and arms manufacturing divestment. So many student organizers were psyched to ignite campaigns on their campuses this fall. The enthusiasm shared by participants of the summer gathering was infectious.

People & Planet could not have chosen a more fitting and prevalent campaign. Due to its focus on both environmental and social issues, P&P has the unique ability to illuminate the social justice impacts of climate change through the Fossil Free UK campaign. Our campaigns must fight in solidarity with communities living fence-line to refineries, mines, and power plants and those who are fighting on the frontlines to stop the destructive practices of the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is not only about preserving the planet for the future, but also protecting human rights in the present.

Fossil Free Banner

While discussing the beginning of Fossil Free UK, we were awakened to the many differences between the U.S. campaign and the UK context. It took us a while to realize that college in the U.S. is not the same as college in the UK. It was also shocking that the U.S. holds over 4,000 universities while the UK has less than 200 and UK endowments are generally smaller. But, it is because of this that divestment can have a huge impact in the UK. Divesting every university from fossil fuels is much more possible in the UK, and therefore the potential for impact is greater. Following divestment, it will be possible to tackle the other ties that bind universities to the fossil fuel industry such as job recruiting and research funding. Another advantage to the UK campaign is the enormous power granted to students through the student union system. By this democratic process, campaigns can move rapidly. Divestment is a great way to take advantage of this power.

Though our university contexts are quite different, we have so much to learn from each other. Forming these international networks and continuing to build relationships across borders will empower our movement. I am anxious to see how divestment spreads throughout the UK and Europe with the arrival of the UK Do The Math tour this fall, and excited to watch our movement grow worldwide.

Thanks to everyone at the People & Planet Summer Gathering for welcoming us into your community, sharing your stories, and inspiring me to keep fighting together. There are few more important ways students can leverage their power to make an impact that extends well beyond the confines of the campus. Onwards!