Students at Dalhousie University in Halifax are a determined lot. Campaigning against the burning of fossil fuels, they have occupied the office of school president Richard Florizone. They’ve also created a six-foot-high dinosaur to signify that investing in pollution-causing industries is a skeleton in the university’s closet.

Divest Dal is one of at least 34 academic-based campaigns across the country pressuring administrations to divest holdings in fossil fuels on ethical grounds.

However, the Dal effort suffered a setback when the Dal administration announced it would not sell off an estimated $20.5-million in fossil fuel holdings.

“We did not accept the Board’s no vote,” says Laura Cutmore, a Divest Dal organizer, in an email. “We will continue to campaign towards divestment for as long as it takes.”

Divest Dal works with the support of , by far the largest group in the world involved in campaigning, and they have a lot of faith in’s leadership., which operates gofossilfree announced with considerable fanfare that the campaign urging institutions, mostly universities, churches, and pension funds to divest their endowment holdings in fossil fuels is working well.

Canadian organizer Cam Fenton wrote in an email: “In a matter of years it has grown from a student led campaign on a few campuses to something that is impacting some of the largest political and financial institutions on the planet.”

The website claims that “our movement is strong and the fossil fuel industry is fighting for its life.”

Whoa! Not so fast.

While runs a number of important campaigns, such as “Resist Trump’s Climate Agenda," there are serious questions about whether divestment campaigning is effective or whether it should be replaced by direct action campaigning.

Bamboozled by misleading numbers

To begin with, the movement misleads the public about how much divestment has occurred.’s website says that 688 institutions who represent more than $5-trillion dollars of assets have committed to divest! That’s correct. But groups – including Dal and itself – erroneously claim that the divestment amount itself is $5-trillion. does not know how much money in fossil fuels institutions have divested. Many institutions are so secretive about their overall holdings, it’s impossible to say what the true divestment total might be.

In September 2015, Mother Jones magazine investigated the claims of the divestment movement. At that time, wrote a news release with the headline “Fossil fuel divestment pledges surpass $2.6-trillion,” when that figure actually represented the total assets of organizations planning to divest.

Ellen Dorsey, director of the Wallace Global Fund, told the magazine that the best she could do would be to estimate the true percentage of fossil fuel holdings of institutions based on holdings on the S&P 500. The average is from three to seven per cent, meaning that the $2.6-trillion claim was probably much closer to $182-billion, a pretty small amount.

I was unable to find any attempts by to correct itself or other groups when the divestment total was grossly inaccurate. It seems to me they prefer people to be bamboozled by the huge trillions number.

To its credit, the divestment campaign has been successful in raising awareness about the damage fossil fuels do to the climate.

“We have changed the conversation about climate change on campus,” writes Cutmore from Divest Dal. “We have raised awareness and made divestment the most popular and long-lasting activism campaign in recent memory.”

But the campaign has been much less successful in getting institutions to divest.

In Canada, three schools are taking different steps:

  • Concordia University has divested $5-million to a Sustainable Investment Fund as a pilot project – an amount highly disappointing to Divest Concordia, which is pressing for further divestment.
  • While the University of Ottawa has not divested any holdings, it says it will transfer $10-million from its long-term portfolio to provide seed capital for investing in clean technologies, and has adopted a plan that will see the school reduce the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio by 30 per cent by 2030.
  • Just this month Université Laval committed itself to divest itself of fossil fuel energy holdings, but provided no details.

Overall, after years of campaigning, there has not been a lot of succcess. Of the thousands of universities, colleges, and pension funds in the three main countries targeted, only 688 institutions have divested.

Divestment has little impact

So why aren’t more institutions divesting their fossil fuel holdings?

Practically every institution is sympathetic to the cause, but some, like the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, prefer to keep their shares and try to convince the companies themselves to change.

In addition, when Boards examine the implications of moving around large amounts of money they quickly realize that fees can run into the millions of dollars.

Many institutions discover that divestment does not accomplish very much. Christianna Wood, a Vassar College, N.Y. trustee has had more than 30 years of experience in dealing with one divestment after another – including those related to South Africa, tobacco, and those that create weapons of mass destruction.

“The problem I have found in every instance, without exception, is that trying to use an investment portfolio to accomplish social or political causes comes up short in every way you can imagine,” Wood has said.

Divestment doesn’t hurt fossil fuel companies. “By petulantly selling your shares, you have not hurt the company at all. You’ve just transferred ownership of shares to some other party who cares much less about the issue than you do,” she says.

The fact that divestment activities raise awareness is not enough. The campaigning carried out by tens-of-thousands of volunteers creates the impression that something important is happening, when very little is being accomplished.

Target fossil fuel companies directly

A different strategy is needed.

First, we need to realize that protesting against governments has only limited success. As we see in Canada, the federal government clearly believes that, in order to boost the economy and create jobs, developing fossil fuel resources is much more important to them than seriously fighting climate change.

So we need to go to the heart of the problem. We must directly oppose the corporations that contribute to the deaths of some 5.5-million people globally annually.

Yes, the corporations are big and powerful, but if they are taken on one at a time, their businesses can be disrupted. A campaign could begin by targeting a vulnerable corporation, probably a coal company.

Every possible tactic should be used, from sit-ins, to protests, and boycotts of different kinds of fossil fuel company products, awards mocking corporate executives, and guerrilla theatre.

Unlike the divestment campaign, which utilizes thousands of volunteers and has little to show for it, a few hundred determined people could carry out a campaign against fossil fuel corporations.

Keep reading

Divestment has to go together with boycott, otherwise, as was suggested, you are just passing on the shares of a company on to someone else who may not care as much. Getting the tens of thousands of students and facualty to boycott a business, even one as large as Exxon, has overall ramifications that extend far beyong the university or college, where others can take up the cause.

When an enemy capable of destroying the world is left untouched it will destroy the world. When it is combatted BY EVERY MEANS POSSIBLE then the more weapons you bring to the battle the more likely you will win the battle in the shortest time. The recruitment to that battle is, firstly, through the hearts and minds of people. Use every weapon at your disposal in winning those hearts and minds.

Fossil fuel companies provide consumers with products they use in every aspects of their life. Targeting fossil fuel corporations is not enough, action has to start at home by reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. The transportation sector should particularly be targeted. According to a 2016 NEB's Market Snapshot on emissions from the transportation sector: "Total Canadian GHG emissions have increased from 614 Mt (CO2 eq) in 1990 to 733 Mt in 2014, an average annual growth rate of 0.7%. GHG emissions from the transportation sector, the second largest emitter in Canada, has had stronger growth since 1990, at an average annual rate of 1.1% per year. In 2014, emissions from the transportation sector were 171 Mt, roughly 23% of total Canadian GHG emissions.
The largest source of transportation emissions was from passenger transportation, including passenger cars, light trucks, aviation, bus, rail, and motorcycle. In 2014, passenger transportation accounted for 55% of total GHG emissions from the transportation sector, or 95 Mt... Despite "improved fuel economy and emissions standards" in most vehicles, the growing trend of "consumer preference" for SUV's and light trucks has resulted in GHG emissions from light trucks more than doubling, from 22 Mt in 1990 to 50 Mt in 2014, which has more than "offset" reductions in passenger car emissions from 52 Mt in 1990 to 36 Mt in 2014."
(source: National Energy Board Market Snapshot: Increased GHG emissions from the transportation sector reflect major consumer and business trends")
Another study by Natural Resources Canada shows the emission impacts resulting from vehicle idling: "For every litre of gasoline used, a vehicle produces about 2.3 kilograms of CO2 (carbon dioxide), the principle GHG linked to climate change. With internal combustion engines, no technology exists for eliminating CO2 emissions, an unavoidable by-product of burning fossil fuels. One simple and effective way to reduce the production of CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles is by choosing to eliminate unnecessary vehicle idling. In fact, if Canadian motorists avoided idling just three minutes every day of the year, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 1.4 Mt (million tonnes) annually. This would be equal to saving 630 million litres of fuel and equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off the road for the entire year."
Personal choices can make a lot of difference by reducing GHG emissions. By reducing the demand for fossil fuels, changing our consumption behaviour will directly impact the fossil fuel industry.