Towards a Just Transition in Education: A Strategic Guide on Fossil Fuel Divestment for Education Unions

published 22 November 2023 updated 22 November 2023
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Amidst intensifying climate change impacts, demanding the phaseout of fossil fuels and the acceleration of a just and rapid transition into a low-carbon economy are urgent political tasks. For educators and their unions, a critical step is consolidating a fossil fuel divestment campaign that targets not just the disentanglement of public and private funds from fossil fuel corporations but also the dissolution of the industry’s influence in the education sector.

Despite various declarations by governments of a climate emergency, the fossil fuel industry continues to receive unprecedented amounts of public funding in the form of subsidies. In 2022, the industry received $1 trillion in subsidies globally, a figure that rises each year. Meanwhile, the profits of the top five western fossil fuel corporations—Exxon, Chevron, TotalEnergies, Shell and British Petroleum—skyrocketed to $200 billion in the same year. This means that while ordinary people were being battered by extreme weather events all over the world, the fossil fuel industry was amassing record-high profits with the aid of subsidies from a crisis of its own historical making.

The fossil fuel industry continues to flourish, in part, because of a social license that normalizes its destructive business model as legitimate and inescapable. A “social license to operate” is instrumental in preserving the fossil fuel industry’s hegemonic power, which is a critical component in its regime of obstruction against progressive climate action. Education is an important tool through which the industry perpetuates this regime of obstruction, which includes corporate dominance of the energy industry, political interference and pedagogical manipulation. In what has been termed “petro-pedagogy,” the industry exerts influence upon the education sector through a set of seemingly innocuous teaching techniques and resources that reproduce fossil fuel industry narratives. For instance, in the education systems of the US, UK, Australia, and Canada, to name a few, fossil fuel actors and lobbyists have been known to distribute fossil fuel propaganda among school-age children. In higher education, the fossil fuel industry employs seemingly innocuous forms of influence such as donations and the provision of research funding in order to promote energy policy recommendations that are favorable to the industry, such as in the case of unproven carbon capture storage technologies. The interference of the fossil fuel industry in education cannot be denied. Hence, mounting a fossil fuel divestment campaign to disentangle the industry’s web of influence needs to be on the agenda of education unions.

Fossil fuel divestment aims to achieve two things: abrogate the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate; and signal that public funds and private financial institutions must redirect much needed finances to renewable and cleaner energy sources. Given that global pension fund assets exceeded $21 trillion in 2021, a global fossil fuel divestment campaign can have a substantial impact on the fossil fuel industry.

Relatedly, it is also important to allay concerns about the possible losses of a fossil fuel divestment on the pension funds of ordinary workers. In a recent study, prominent economists debunked the oft-cited argument that disinvesting from the fossil fuel industry would be disastrous for pension funds. In most countries, the bulk of fossil fuel assets are owned by the wealthy or 1% of the population in countries such as the US, for instance. This suggests that the brunt of losses that would be incurred from the stranding of assets in fossil fuels will be borne by an affluent subset. Even in an extreme scenario where investments are aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement of keeping temperature rise well below 2°C by 2100, wealthy investors will only lose 2% of their accumulated wealth. Hence, pension funds will not “grind to a halt” as previously argued by defenders of fossil fuel corporations.

Despite the growing influence of the fossil fuel industry in the education sector, it has also been historically fertile ground for resistance against fossil fuel hegemony. Students and educators have been at the forefront of the fossil fuel divestment movement since it gained popularity on higher education campuses in North America in 2011. Hence, education unions are enjoined to initiate their own fossil fuel divestment campaigns, that not only seek to sever financial ties with fossil fuel entities but also reject the industry’s broader goal of entrenching neoliberal values in education, a longstanding advocacy among education unions. While not exhaustive nor prescriptive, this study offers fossil fuel divestment strategies by unions, for unions. By presenting a coherent case for a fossil fuel divestment, this study also aims to provide a long-term political strategy on climate action for education unions that unites their established advocacies against the privatization of education and a renewed commitment to climate action based on climate justice and a just transition.