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Justice is the goal: divestment as climate change resistance


This article takes a sympathetic look at the university fossil fuel divestment movement. The push for divestment is changing the conversation about what “sustainability” means for college campuses. It is also generating a new, more critical and politically engaged cadre of climate activists. We use a shared auto-ethnographic approach from student activists’ and professors’ perspectives to analyze the campus divestment movement based on the experience of American University’s Fossil Free AU campaign. We argue that this issue is one where sustainability politics are re-politicized as they challenge traditional power relations and conceptualizations of what environmentalism entails. The case study explores how a climate justice framework, radical perspectives, and inside/outsider strategies were used within the campaign. We argue that the campus fossil fuel divestment movement holds potential to change the university’s expressed values from complicity with fossil fuel economies toward an emergent paradigm of climate justice, stemming predominantly from student activism. The work presents new vantage points for understanding the relationship of personal experience, local campaigns of ecological resistance, and sustainability politics more broadly.

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  1. None of the student authors received course credit, nor were they similarly graded in relation to this work. We occasionally met in person and most frequently collaborated in virtual spaces such as email and videoconference and delineated roles for the case study narrative and data analysis to largely be driven by the student collaborators and theoretical contributions and analysis largely led by the faculty co-authors within a series of iterations of this work.

  2. For the referendum and resolution voting results, see: and

  3. The university’s investment advisors, Cambridge Associates, did make clear that a withdrawal of endowment investments from fossil fuel companies would be possible, but management fees were estimated to double by $1.1 million per year. Since investment in a divested portfolio could not be assured to be financially insignificant for the university, the board decision concluded that “DC law surpassed the relevance of other considerations, including compelling arguments both for and against divestment the DC law concerning fiduciary responsibility.” Sine, J. A. 2014. Fall 2014 Board of Trustees Meeting – Sustainability & Fossil Free Discussion and Decision. ed. A. U. Community. Washington DC: American University.


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Correspondence to Eve Bratman.

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Bratman, E., Brunette, K., Shelly, D.C. et al. Justice is the goal: divestment as climate change resistance. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 677–690 (2016).

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  • Divestment
  • Fossil fuel
  • Climate change
  • Higher education
  • Activism