Meet the Mass Movement That Will Finally Take Down the Fossil Fuel Industry

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

A few weeks ago, on June 25, I stood outside President Obama’s climate address along with 100 other young environmental activists. We chanted “Yes we can, comprehensive climate plan,” and “Fired up, ready to go, fossil fuels have got to go!” Our protest came right off the heels of a letter to the president from over 150 of his former campaign staff, coordinated by the Energy Action Coalition. The letter called on the president to keep his promise on dealing with climate change, starting by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. 

As a former staffer for the Obama campaign, I worked to elect the president because I knew that he would make the right call on tough decisions dealing with climate. We had all been waiting for his speech, because climate change is a big deal.  

Even if you forget about all of the economic and human devastation caused by disasters like Superstorm Sandy, and the fact that pipelines are breaking and covering towns like Mayflower, Arkansas in nasty tar sands oil, climate change is STILL a big deal. Big coal, oil, and natural gas are destroying people’s health, access to safe and drinkable water, and in many cases, their livelihoods. In low-income communities where coal-fired power plants and oil refineries are usually located, sick and outraged residents are too often silenced or unable to speak out and fight against the gross injustice caused by under-regulated polluting corporations that are rarely held accountable. In order to force the powerful and giant fossil fuel industry to take accountability for its actions, we need an even more powerful and giant political movement.

We need a political movement because these companies are obscenely rich, and as a result they have political power. In 2012 alone, the fossil fuel industry spent over $150 million lobbying Congress. With that much money on the line, obviously politicians are going to think about pleasing the organizations that fund their campaigns when writing policy and casting votes instead of thinking about the constituents who nicely ask them to think about the Earth

Until now. Our mass political movement has started, and we’re showing Congress that people want to live in a safe and clean world free from the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry.

Led by students, fossil fuel divestment campaigns started making waves at over 300 college and university campuses this past fall. Student activists demanded that college and university administrations freeze all new investments in the fossil fuel industry, divest existing investments from fossil fuels, and reinvest those funds into environmentally and socially responsible alternatives. 

The idea is that if divestment is successful, Congress will see that we care about our climate and our communities. Big coal, oil, and natural gas will be stripped of their political power. In turn, politicians will start acting in favor of people rather than polluting corporations. Divestment will also free up capital for reinvestment in climate solutions and the green economy, building alternative options to meet our energy demands. Divestment campaigns s are gaining steam everywhere, spreading to places of worship and major cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which have already pledged to divest.

A few weeks ago, the student fossil fuel divestment movement saw one of its greatest successes to date. During President Obama’s address on climate change, he gave a shout out to what is now the biggest student movement in decades.

“Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest ... Make yourself heard on this issue.”

I watched his speech from a coffee shop with about 30 other young divestment activists, and we all shouted, screamed, and/or fell out of our chairs. This was huge. The president of the United States of America knows that we have started a legitimate, world-changing movement, and he likes it. 

Shortly after his speech, some digging was done, and we found out that President Obama was once a divestment activist himself

During his time at Occidental College, the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing. Divestment was a key tactic in the fight for social justice in South Africa. Young Barry spoke at the beginning of a rally, introducing South African activist Tim Ngubeni of the Black Consciousness Movement by saying, “We call this rally today to bring attention to Occidental’s investment in South Africa and Occidental’s lack of investment in multicultural education.” He said that although South Africa’s struggles were “happening an ocean away,” it was “a struggle that touches each and every one of us.” At the end of his speech, two students pretending to be oppressive Afrikaners carried him away. This was Obama's first time taking action for what he believed was right. His work in organizing at Occidental was central to shaping the man that would become our current president.

A few days after President Obama’s climate speech, Justin Gillis wrote an article in the New York Times about the president’s mention of fossil fuel divestment. In it, he quoted a blog post that I wrote for We Are Power Shift. The mass media has begun to acknowledge that students have tremendous power, legitimizing the fight for climate justice. The president has known about the power of student organizing since he spoke out against apartheid 30 years ago. He proved that again on June 25. The New York Times understands the power of student organizing. Soon, the fossil fuel industry will know that students have the power to change the unhealthy and oppressive status quo, the ability to be an instrumental force in creating a more just world.

With this many students united, we know that divestment will succeed. Not all 300 campus divestment campaigns will convince their administrations to divest from fossil fuels. Even if they did, companies like Shell and Exxon-Mobil won’t suddenly be poor. But politicians will respond to the mass political movement that calls for sound environmental policy.

We want polluters to be held responsible for their actions. We want expansion of renewable energies lke wind and solar. We want coal, oil, and natural gas to no longer be given tax breaks and subsidies. The president wants these things too, but he can’t do it without our mass movement. 

Divestment has sparked from campuses to communities across the country, a mass movement led by the generation that elected Obama to office. Just as President Obama’s involvement in the apartheid divestment movement laid the foundation for the man that he would become, thousands of college students who are part of the fossil fuel divestment movement are building the foundation for a generation that will continue to fight for climate justice and freedom from the devastating impacts of giant polluting corporations. 

With the help of our newest organizing ally, President Obama, we will win.

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