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

published 4 December 2023 updated 19 January 2024
written by:

Every year, despite recording ‘hottest ever’ temperatures, the world consumes more fossil fuels than ever before. Consequently, climate disasters also continue to rise in frequency and intensity. In 2022, for instance, a third of Pakistan’s land mass was under water for several months following record monsoon rains and melting glaciers from the country’s northern mountain regions. It affected 33 million people, killed more than 1,700 and caused $15 billion in economic damages. In Europe, a deadly heatwave caused 16,000 excess deaths, and affected 185 million people. Meanwhile, between 2013 and 2022, global sea levels have risen twice the rate since the first decade of measurement from 1993 to 2002. At 4.62 mm of increase per year, rising sea levels are becoming an existential threat to small island nations such as Tuvalu and Vanuatu in the Pacific region.

Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry amassed astronomical profits amidst climate chaos. Last year, the top five western fossil corporations registered combined profits of $200 billion, making it their most profitable year yet. This means that while ordinary people were being battered by extreme weather events all over the world, the fossil fuel industry was gaining record-high profits from a crisis of its own historical making. In addition, the industry received $1 trillion in subsidies despite operating a business model built on planetary destruction.

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 benevolent 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 for education unions, fossil fuel divestment can also provide a long-term political strategy on climate action. Even with the growing influence of the fossil fuel industry in the education sector, it can be fertile ground for resistance against fossil fuel hegemony. Education unions are encouraged to initiate their own fossil fuel divestment campaigns, which 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. Below are a few recommendations on fuel divestment strategies by unions, for unions.

Investigate where union, pension and other funds are being invested.

Raising awareness on where funds are invested is the first step in any divestment campaign. Unions can generate awareness among members by initiating a thorough accounting of their investment portfolios, taking care to investigate if and how much of their funds are currently invested in fossil fuel industries. These findings should be disseminated to members as widely as possible.

Present alternative and sustainable (re)investment opportunities.

Providing alternative and sustainable re-investment opportunities should be part of any fossil fuel divestment proposal. Unions can consult with members as well as credible fund managers on possible options. Additionally, presenting the potential economic and health benefits from an energy transition via fossil fuel divestment such as jobs generation, lessening pollution and energy security demonstrates long term benefits for members and their communities.

Utilise the union’s democratic processes.

The democratic process is key in advancing divestment dialogue. During a congress or general meeting, unionists can propose a resolution on fossil fuel divestment to formalise commitments and present a just transition action plan. Democratic consultations with members should also be conducted to address concerns and generate recommendations.

Empower a “just transition” champion within the union.

Survey the membership for an expert who can lead conversations regarding a fossil fuel divestment and its relevance to a just transition for the education sector. Empower these members to lead just transition related campaigns.

Build your union’s fossil fuel divestment talking points and arguments.

Build a set of fact-based and data-driven talking points on fossil fuel divestment that is context appropriate to your union, target community and country. Provide trainings and workshops to members as part of your campaign.

Highlight the granular connections between a fossil fuel divestment campaign and longstanding campaigns against privatization in education.

To build discursive cohesion within unions, fossil fuel divestment should also be connected to longstanding campaigns against privatization. Forging the granular connections between a just transition, fossil fuel divestment and the fight for more resilient public education systems can only generate higher engagement among members and build synergies on existing education union campaigns.

Know and build relationships with allies in the community.

In campaigning for fossil fuel divestment among publicly held funds such as pension and Superannuation funds, allies will be crucial. As public funds are usually governed by trustees, consultants and fund managers, ordinary workers and unions have limited power over investment decisions. However, concerted efforts among trade unions, climate justice groups, youth groups and allied politicians can have the potential to advance fossil fuel divestment in legislation, as in the case of the New Zealand Superannuation fund which has committed to fossil fuel divestment from fossil fuels by 2050 [1]. Good faith implementation of these pronouncements, however, should be monitored by concerned citizens and social movements.

Fortify international solidarity.

Building international solidarity in pushing for fossil fuel divestment will also be key. Strengthening the movement’s capacity for demanding governments, education institutions and industries to forge international cooperation is critical in addressing a transnational problem like climate change. The trade union movement, for instance, has been a key player among social movements active in international climate negotiations, where multilateral cooperation regarding climate finance, net zero policies and just transition programmes are being discussed.

Sharpen your union’s social dialogue tactics regarding climate action.

As a social movement, unions have a unique tool in their arsenal in pushing for climate action: social dialogue. Hence, unions are well placed to access government and education officials and demand climate action at varying levels.

Author’s Note:

My heartfelt gratitude to the following unionists for their generosity in attending the strategic meetings and contributing to the strategies presented in this study:

Rosalia Fatiaki, AUSPS – Fiji

Rob McCafferty, NZPPTA – Aotearoa New Zealand

Shayne Curtin, TUI – Ireland

John McLeod, EIS – Scotland

David Hughes, AFT – USA

1. ^

Walls, J. (2019, 11 March). NZ Herald. Greenpeace is calling on the SuperFund to divest its $550m of shares in oil and gas companies. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/greenpeace-is-calling-on-the-super-fund-to-divest-its-550m-of-shares-in-oil-and-gas-companies/BJBJHGD355XQWYNVV2MVRCFB7Y/

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.