My findings suggest that the direct impacts of divestment can be clearly divided between the effects on participants in the movement, which can be categorised as primarily cultural and mobilisation impacts; and the effects of the campaigns on their targets, which include political and financial effects on the universities targeted and the impacts of withdrawing funds from fossil fuel companies (or commitments to doing so).
3.1. Effects on Participants—Cultural and Mobilisation Impacts
Most of the activist interviewees mentioned the empowering effect Divestment had on participants. Interviewees suggested Divestment had a clear message of something people could do to make a difference, giving students who were not focused on environmental work or studies a way to engage with climate change, beyond preaching to people to change their individual behaviour. A former student activist (A2) explained her motivations:
The whole point is that a lot of people’s ability—or perception of their ability—to do anything about climate change is completely constrained by the perception that the problem is too big. It’s too abstract, it’s too global, it’s too long term. ... After talking about climate change for years and years and years, it’s nice to have something that you feel that you can actually [do]… A goal that you can attain in a reasonable timeframe.
Similar sentiments of an opportunity to get involved in politics through collective action were expressed by students involved in the ‘Fossil Free Sussex’ campaign at the University of Sussex [23
This suggests that the grassroots, targeted campaigns gave people the feeling of agency. This effect on participants can be seen as a cultural impact, in forging new identities and awareness.
Beyond individual effects, Divestment played an important mobilisation role for the global environmental movement. In the early 2010s NGOs had trouble motivating the public to take action on climate change, while young activists lacked a platform with which to engage climate change issues [11
]. The divestment movement acted as a ‘rallying call’ [30
], contributing to the reappearance of student activism in the UK [31
]. On the other hand, the problematic side of student activism was acknowledged: the need to ‘refresh’ people and energy, as students move on quickly, with Divestment having a high level of ‘burnout’ (A5).
A few interviewees suggested Divestment had the additional (cultural and mobilisation) impact of engaging students in broader environmental issues, increasing the size of the environmental movement. Participants were politicised and one campaigner (A7) stated:
I’ve seen people, after a year or a year and a half of organising for divestment, leave with a much deeper, more coherent radical politics ... than when they arrived and go on to continue organising with that in mind.
Divestment marked a shift from individualised efforts to collective political action on climate change [13
]. This matches other findings about the environmental movement contributing to the vitality of democracy, not least through attracting young people for whom mainstream politics hold little interest [25
]. The draw of environmental movements is the practical, demonstrable impacts they promise, at least at the local level; this could apply to the idea of achievable (university) divestment.
From a mobilisation point of view, Divestment offered organisational learning. University campaigns drew on various tactics, including negotiation and collaboration with university authorities but also tactics of reputational damage or direct action against them. UK wide, the student movement is coordinated by People & Planet (A7), allowing new campaigns to learn quickly from previous ones.
3.2. Direct Financial and Political Impacts
From a financial perspective, divestment commitments so far are small on the global scale and sometimes only partial but they do include some influential institutions [6
]. However, there are signs that early adopters have begun a substantial asset movement worth $
2.6 trillion [32
]. While oil and gas might not feel the direct impact of divestment, coal might already be suffering from divestment and perceived financial risk [10
] as insurance companies have pulled out equities and bonds worth $
20 billion from coal investments and a growing number are refusing to underwrite new coal projects, making them uninsurable [33
This global divestment is the sum of many actions of divesting funds, big and small, many of which can be linked to the bottom-up movement. For example, Kemp [34
] finds that the strongest force behind divestment in Australia is “simple public pressure from concerned citizens, investors and students.” Furthermore, it is not the powerful actors who are taking action [34
]: some local government is divesting, while the federal government are still making fossil-fuel industry friendly policies; smaller banks have responded to climate concerns, while the largest ones fund the fossil fuel industry; and Australian universities which have divested have all had ‘fossil free’ campaigns in them, that is, this has been bottom-up action and not proactive action by university administration.
Interviewees suggested that nearly half of UK universities had pledged divestment, usually following divestment campaigns on their campuses. While some pledges had an unrealistic timeline, or committed to divest from some but not all fossil fuels (e.g., coal and tar sands), these were still accountable, public pledges. Some universities, such as University of Sussex, did not, strictly speaking, commit to divest; however, they discussed the broader issues of SRI (socially responsible investment) and chose to move investments to an ethical fund which does not invest in fossil fuels, among other things. The divestment campaign in this case caused a broader rethinking of investment policies, an example of direct, local political impact.
In the age of neoliberal education, where students are treated more and more as consumers, students realised that they were ‘constituents’ who could make demands. Divestment used this to its advantage, for example, Fossil Free Sussex focused on re-empowering the student voice on campus [23
]. Some interviewees saw this approach as one of the reasons for successful university campaigns.
The direct impacts of Divestment are summarised in the top half of Figure 1
, with effects on participants seen as cultural and mobilisation impacts and effects of divestment campaigns as political and financial impacts.