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Climate change

The movement to stop burning fossil fuels

Trócaire’s ‘The Burning Question’ campaign is part of a global movement of organisations and individuals who are demanding an end to the fossil fuel era and a faster move to a cleaner, more sustainable future. 

global divestment figures

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Everyday, Trócaire staff working in developing countries see the devastating effects of climate change, which is driven to a large extent by the burning of fossil fuels in more developed countries.

They are witnessing increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like droughts and floods, the loss of crops and livelihoods, and the increasing threat of hunger and malnutrition. 

So where did this movement to end the fossil fuel era start, how big is it and how successful has it been so far?

The birth of a movement

The movement originated in 2012 from a climate action organisation based in the US called 350.org

One of its founders, Bill McKibben realised that a campaign was needed to break the bond that had developed between fossil fuel companies and politicians as it was preventing political action on climate change. 

He saw that by campaigning against investments in fossil fuel companies, a stigmatisation of these companies’ practices would arise, making it hard for politicians to support them. 

The campaign really took off when McKibben published an article for Rolling Stone magazine called ‘Do The Math’ in which he explained how 80% of known fossil fuel reserves would need to stay in the ground in order to prevent the worse effects of climate change. 

He explained that to ensure that the fossil fuels remain in the ground we have to stop investing in the companies taking them out. The article went viral online.

The movement catches fire

McKibben took ‘Do The Math’ on tour like a rock band would, with strobe lights, musicians and celebrities. 

He called on the crowds to start what had been named ‘divestment’ campaigns after the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaign in the 80s. 

He asked them to push their colleges, churches, charities, and pension funds to stop investing in the top oil and coal companies. 

The impact was immediate. In just three days after the tour started Vermont College announced it would divest. 

By the end of November 2012, one hundred divestment campaigns had started. 

And by the end of 2014, that number had become more than a thousand. 

The campaign took off in the UK under the ‘Fossil Free’ banner in 2013. It has now become the fastest growing divestment campaign in history.

Big wins

There have been a number of big wins in this global campaign:

  • In September 2014, the heirs to the Rockerfeller withdrew all the fossil fuel investment in the $860 million Rockerfeller Brothers Fund.
  • Syracuse University committed in April 2015 to divest its $1.18bn endowment and to seek new investments in clean energy technologies.
  • In the same month, the Guardian Media Group divested its £800m fund.
  • In May 2016, the District of Columbia government in Washington D.C. announced that its $6.4 billion pension fund has fully divested from its direct investments in 200 of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel companies.

Notable supporters

The campaign also has a number of notable endorsers including former president of Ireland and UN envoy on climate and El Nino Mary Robinson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama, Al Gore, 
actor Leonardo Di Caprio, actor and comedian Russell Brand, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and actor Tilda Swinton.

Where is it today?

Today, the approximate value of the institutions divested from fuels is $3.4 trillion, with well over 500 institutions in total divesting. 50,000 individuals have also divested about $5.2 billion.

Jamie Henn of 350.org recently said that “when we started fanning the divestment flames we had no idea what a wildfire would quickly spread around the world. People instantly understood the power of challenging institutions to put their money where their mouths are.”

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