Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-7-2016

Publication Source

Local Environment, December 2016, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2016.1256382

Abstract

This paper provides a critical overview and analysis of the student-led fossil fuel divestment (FFD) movement and its impact on sustainability discourse and actions within US higher education. Analysing higher education institutes’ (HEIs) divestment press releases and news reports shows how institutional alignment with cultures of sustainability and social justice efforts played key roles in HEIs’ decisions to divest from fossil fuels. Key stated reasons for rejection were: minimal or unknown impact of divestment, risk to the endowment, and fiduciary duty. Participant observation and interviews with protagonists reveal the intricate power structures and vested business interests that influence boardroom divestment decision-making. While some HEIs embrace transformative climate actions, we contend that higher education largely embraces a business-as-usual sustainability framework characterised by a reformist green-economy discourse and a reluctance to move beyond business interest responses to climate politics. Nonetheless, the FFD movement is pushing HEIs to move from compliance-oriented sustainability behaviour towards a more proactive and highly politicised focus on HEIs’ stance in the modern fossil fuel economy. We offer conceptual approaches and practical directions for reorienting sustainability within HEIs to prioritise the intergenerational equity of its students and recognise climate change as a social justice issue. Fully integrating sustainability into the core business of HEIs requires leadership to address fundamental moral questions of both equity and responsibility for endowment investments. We contend that HEIs must re-evaluate their role in averting catastrophic climate change, and extend their influence in catalysing public climate discourse and actions through a broader range of external channels, approaches, and actors.

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