Divestment diminishes the political influence of FF companies by stigmatizing their untenable carbon pollution, their anti-climate action lobbying and their anti-science disinformation campaigns. This will create political breathing room for meaningful climate legislation. 

We have the technological solutions to climate change1. The limiting factor in solving climate change is not technology, it is the political will to implement it2. In particular, there are a few key ingredients that will open the gates to an energy revolution:

  • Bold international commitments - surpassing all past agreements3,4,5,6 - to emissions reductions and climate legislation consistent with the science of global warming7,8,9,10.
  • A price on carbon (in the form of either a carbon tax or an emissions cap-and-dividend scheme) to reflect the true cost of unchecked carbon pollution by fossil fuel burning (‘internalizing the externalities’ in the jargon)11. This will render fossil fuel extraction economically inviable, driving a rapid transition to clean energy2. A price on carbon will also ensure that renewable energy is developed in place of – not in addition to – fossil fuel-based energy, as has been the case so far.
  • And end to the fossil fuel subsidies.

So long as the fossil fuel industry maintains its stranglehold on Washington – spending $500 million every year12 lobbying against climate change action - none of these things will be accomplished and the energy revolution will remain stuck in neutral.

MIT has an opportunity to help break the deadlock. At MIT we wield a megaphone to public opinion and can sway discourse at the highest levels in the land. We can shift the debate. Through divestment we have an opportunity to symbolically strip fossil fuel companies of their social licence – of our ‘moral prestige’13. Divestment certainly won’t bankrupt them, but it will start to politically bankrupt them. In stigmatising the industry’s anti-science lobbying and disinformation campaigns, we can help to create political breathing room for meaningful climate legislation and leadership.


This isn’t just wishful thinking. A recent in-depth analysis of the fossil fuel divestment campaign from the University of Oxford14 - backed by Aviva Investors, HSBC, Standard & Poor’s, among others – concluded that,

“In almost every divestment campaign we reviewed from adult services to Darfur, from tobacco to South Africa, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation affecting stigmatised firms.” Here are a few examples from the report (click to enlarge):


The best part is that even if we lose, we win. Divestment will force some of the most powerful and influential people in the country – many of whom sit on MIT’s Board of Trustees – to grapple with the immorality and scientific impracticality of unchecked fossil fuel burning.

  1. Pacala, S., Socolow, R. Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305, 968 (2004). [link] []
  2. Rogelj, J. et al. Probabilistic cost estimates for climate change mitigation. Nature 493, 79 (2013). [link] [] []
  3. Rogelj, J. et al. Copenhagen Accord pledges are paltry. Nature 464, 1126 (2010). [link] []
  4. Rogelj, J. et al. Halfway to Copenhagen, no way to 2 °C. Nature Climate Change 3, 81 (2009). [link] []
  5. Rogelj, J. et al. Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord pledges and its global climatic impacts—a snapshot of dissonant ambitions. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 034013 (2010). [link] []
  6. Sawin, E. R. et al. Current Emissions Reductions Proposals in the Lead-Up to COP-15 are likely to be insufficient to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels: Using C-Roads – a simple computer simulation of climate change – to support long-term climate policy development. Climate Change – Global Risks, Challenges, and Decisions Conference, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 2009. [link] []
  7. Allen, M. et al. The exit strategy. Nature Climate Change. 3, 57 (2009). [link] []
  8. Rogelj, J. et al. Emission pathways consistent with a 2 °C global temperature limit. Nature Climate Change 1, 413 (2013). [link] []
  9. Meinshausen, M. et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 459, 1158 (2009). [link] []
  10. Messner, D., Schellenhuber, J., Rahmstorf, S., Klingenfeld, D. The budget approach: A framework for a global transformation toward a low-carbon economy. J. of Ren. & Sust. Energy 2, 031003 (2010). [link] []
  11. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, World Economic Forum, Davos (January 2014). [link 1] [link 2] []
  12. Burners-Lee, M., Clark, D. The Burning Question, 2013. [link] []
  13. Monbiot, G. Oxford University won’t take funding from tobacco companies. But Shell’s OK. The Guardian (May 2013). [link] []
  14. University of Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets? (2013). [link] []
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