Fossil Fuel Divestment: What Makes a Successful Movement?

It is good to end the year with some positive news; the announcement that the value of assets committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuel companies has reached $5 trillion

The fossil fuel divestment movement has gone from marginal to mainstream in just over 5 years. What started at a single university has become a global movement with universities, pension & insurance funds, foundations, sovereign wealth funds, local governments, cities, faith-based organisations, individuals and others all committing to moving their money out of oil, gas and coal companies.

The study of social movements as well as of fossil fuel divestment is extensive; I offer these insights to develop my own understanding of this aspect of campaigning rather than to draw any real conclusions. Here are some of the factors that could have contributed to its success.

Tarrow defines movements as “collective challenges, based on a common purpose and social solidarities in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities” (1998: 4). When people couldn’t stop squabbling about climate change the movement provided a clear mandate for action. The original purpose in 2011 was to get one university to shift its endowments out of the most carbon-polluting companies. The growth of the movement then became a focus point for climate activism (Apfel, 2015) sending a signal to society that fossil fuels have no future. Divestment became identified as the object of collective climate action (Della Porta & Diani, 2006).

Clusters, Not Crowds
Mass demonstrations may be the visual symbol of movements but effectiveness comes from the power that comes when small groups connect (Satell, 2016) through informal networks (Della Porta & Diani 2006). As Bill McKibben founder of observes small groups of students involved in the divestment campaign soon spread their expertise to campaigns within the broader anti-fossil fuel movement such as the Keystone Pipeline. Additionally, the movement gave many different people the opportunity to engage with individual institutions where they have a connection (Apfel, 2015) whether a university, hospital, local authority, foundation – small groups of action drove the campaign forward.


The movement appeals equally to those who want to take to the streets in coordinated protest for global climate justice and those who are concerned about the long-term financial risk from the ‘carbon bubble’. It started as a moral movement – given legitimacy by pillars of the establishment such as universities and religious institutions – and has since become an economic one. A turning point was when the Rockefeller Brothers fund announced it would divest for both ethical and financial risk reasons. Divestment advocacy has converged with a broader anti-fossil fuel movement and campaigns such as #KeepitintheGround and #FossilFuelFree have frame a larger narrative about the decline of fossil fuels” (Arabella Advisors, 2016). In a relatively short space of time the divestment has become unified and has become the issue around which the climate movement could build its collective identify (Della Porta & Diani, 2006).

There are many factors that determine success in social movements, which do you think are important and why?

This blog is part of a series for my Media, Campaigning and Social Change MA at the University of Westminster.


Arabella Advisors, 2016.  The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement. Available at: [Accessed: 19 December 2016]

Apfel, D.C., 2015. Exploring Divestment as a Strategy for Change: An Evaluation of the History, Success, and Challenges of Fossil Fuel Divestment. Social Research, 82(4), pp.913–937.

Della Porta, D. & Diani, M., 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction Second Edi., Blackwell.

Satell, G. (2016) ‘What Successful Movements Have in Common’, Harvard Business Review.

Tarrow, S.G. (1998) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr

5 thoughts on “Fossil Fuel Divestment: What Makes a Successful Movement?

Add yours

  1. Interesting read, I enjoyed how you tracked the development of the campaign. I often wonder how much legitimacy plays into a campaign actor publicly getting involved in divestment campaigning. As I think due to the nature of investments many campaign actors will need to divest themselves too. This could keep them from speaking out as they don’t want to look hypocritical, but that’s a shame as divestment can be a long process. I would like to see more campaign actors adding their voices to the divestment movement and being open about their own divestment journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this post- divestment seems like a really exciting area in contemporary campaigning, and I agree with your example and the sentiment that the connections between small groups can be far more potent than feel-good mass-mobilisations. The whole area of ‘shareholder activism’ seems like a very interesting one which we perhaps neglect because of the common conception of shareholders as capitalist ‘enemies’! Perhaps its just another demographic campaigns need to think more about engaging with.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed your reflective blog. Like you, I’m not quite at the stage of learning to always draw conclusions; however your insights into why this movement was successful are easy to agree with. I do think coalitions, working in partnership are important when a global awareness is required. The smaller groups can also give bigger issues a more personal approach and make it easy to participate, rather than intimidating. This can result in more and more people demanding change.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great blog. To answer your open question: One factor that plays a role in determining success in social movements is the belief that action and campaigning will make a difference…. that in effect…success is possible. A few academics have said words to that effect too and I recall observing cynacism as the greater enemy than the establishment/status quo/police/corporations etc in the movements/campaigning that I have been involved in. Stekenlenburg speaks of efficacy and a group’s standing in a community as being relevant to whether people will protest. Students in a university may feel a higher efficacy in the university than if they were not in the university. She also speaks of cynicism coupled with a lack of efficacy being the double whammy when it comes to people not doing anything to help alter issues that they are unhappy with.

    Liked by 1 person

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