Professor Stephens is Director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and director of strategic research collaborations at the Global Resilience Institute. Her article, “The role of college and university faculty in the fossil fuel divestment movement,” with co-authors Peter C. Frumhoff (Union of Concerned Scientists) and Leehi Yona (Yale University), recently published in UC Press’s open access journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.
UC Press: What is fossil fuel divestment?
Jennie Stephens: Fossil fuel divestment refers to the act of disinvesting from publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel divestment is a social movement that embraces the premise that there is both an ethical and financial responsibility to act on climate change and that investing in fossil fuels is inconsistent with responsible climate action. Any entity that makes investments, including organizations of all kinds as well as individuals, can choose to divest from fossil fuels.
UC Press: How extensive is the fossil fuel divestment movement?
Jennie Stephens: Hundreds of educational organizations, philanthropic foundations, faith-based organizations, public pension funds, and non-governmental organizations have committed to divestment, and thousands of individuals have removed fossil fuels companies from their individual retirement and investment accounts. To date, over 800 institutions with assets valued at over $6.0 trillion dollars have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Guardian Media Group, and the World Council of Churches. Divestment commitments have also been made by dozens of municipal governments, including New York City, and two national governments; Norway and Ireland, have both committed to divest their sovereign wealth funds.
UC Press: What role have colleges and universities played in fossil fuel divestment?
Jennie Stephens: Colleges and universities have played a critical role in the divestment movement. Divestment campaigns have been active on thousands of campuses around the world and at least 128 educational institutions have committed to divestment. While most fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses are primarily student initiatives, faculty have also been actively involved in advocating for divestment.
UC Press: Your team analyzed signatories to publicly available letters endorsing fossil fuel divestment. What did this research uncover, and was there anything surprising about what you found?
Jennie Stephens: Our research reviewed public letters from faculty to administrators in 30 different college and universities in the United States and Canada revealing that 4550 faculty across all major fields of inquiry and scholarship, and all types of faculty positions have endorsed fossil fuel divestment. Of these faculty, more than 30 are members of the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering or Medicine and at least two are Nobel Laureates. The number and diversity of faculty who support divestment was surprising. Our analysis suggests both greater and broader engagement on this issue among faculty than is generally perceived.
UC Press: What do you think is the future of the fossil fuel divestment movement? And what part do you think institutions of higher education may have in this future?
Jennie Stephens: As climate disruptions become more frequent and intense, fossil fuel companies are being held accountable more and more in multiple ways. The divestment movement continues to grow and multiple recent lawsuits against fossil fuel companies are catalyzing new conversations about the industry’s climate responsibility. Of particular concern is the decades-long strategic disinformation campaign of many fossil fuel companies to try to convince the public that climate change is not real and/or that climate change is not caused by fossil fuel burning. Because of this liability and because of the rapid deployment of renewable energy in many parts of the world, fossil fuel divestment may soon become mainstream as investing in fossil fuels becomes increasingly risky.
As for the role of higher education, colleges and universities will continue to play a critical role as society transitions away from fossil fuels. Colleges and universities have distinctive organizational cultures that value and promote learning for social good. Unlike other sectors of society, higher education has unique capacity for long-term, holistic analysis and has the freedom to explore challenging questions that other organizations may be more constrained to explore.
You can read more about the fossil fuel divestment movement and the changing role colleges and universities are playing in relying on and supporting fossil fuels in “The role of college and university faculty in the fossil fuel divestment movement,” from UC Press’s open access journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.
Open Science for Public Good.
Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene is a trans-disciplinary, open-access journal committed to the facilitation of collaborative, peer-reviewed research. With the ultimate objective of accelerating scientific solutions to the challenges presented by this era of human impact, Elementa is uniquely structured into six distinct knowledge domains, and gives authors the opportunity to publish in one or multiple domains, helping them to present their research and commentary to interested readers from disciplines related to their own.