In a small-but-historic move, Maine just became the first state to require the divestment of its state pension system from the fossil fuel industry by 2026. LD 99 was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills on June 16, and requires that the Maine Public Employee Retirement system divest the 1.3 billion dollars it has stowed in the fossil fuel industry by Jan. 1, 2026. The state treasury system, too, must divest by that date.
Though several other states and cities have taken measures towards divestment in recent years, Maine is the first state to require divestment by law. And where many of the cities that have committed to fossil fuel divestment plan to do so by 2040 or 2050—which scientists say is too late to prevent the worst of the climate crisis—Maine has their goal set for 5 years from now. This all cements the state as a continuing leader in a divestment movement that first found success within its borders. The first institution to ever divest from fossil fuels was Unity College, a small school in rural Maine with a focus on the environment and an endowment of just a few million dollars. That was back in 2012. In the years since, investors worth over over $14 trillion have joined the movement and divested.
Maine’s move is also evidence that divestment as a central strategy for combating climate change is being taken more seriously. For over a decade, divestment has been a principal push by young climate activists worldwide. I am currently an undergraduate student at Harvard University and an organizer at Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student campaign with the mission of getting the university to eliminate its sizable investment into fossil fuels. (The Maine connection isn’t just thematic: Our campus movement was co-founded in 2012 by Maine State Senator and LD 99 co-sponsor Chloe Maxmin back when she was an undergraduate at the college.) The institution currently invests $838 million of its $42 billion endowment in fossil fuels. The increasingly high-profile success of the divestment movement owes a lot to the noise-making of young people. I’ve seen Harvard students occupy football fields, organize protests and pancake breakfasts, and even take to TikTok. Divestment groups at other schools have taken similar actions—and they’re working. In the past year alone, student organizers have secured commitments to partial or full divestment from fossil fuels at Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Rutgers, Amherst, and Oxford Universities, to name a few.
Though Harvard’s net-zero-by-2050 plan falls short of qualifying yet as a divestment success story, the story is resonating far beyond campus walls. Last week, Massachusetts State Representatives Mike Connolly and Erika Uyterhoeven introduced a bill that would force Harvard to divest, making the argument that Harvard’s investments are harmful to the commonwealth of Massachusetts at large. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard also recently filed a complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general arguing that Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels are in violation of the university’s fiduciary duty as a charitable institution. If the attorney general finds that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments are unacceptable, the decision could reshape the national conversation around divestment for years to come, in the way that Unity’s smaller efforts have snowballed, too.
This is why Maine’s action is so significant. Divestment catches on because it stigmatizes fossil fuel companies. The fact that fossil fuel companies are attempting to greenwash themselves as their current business model slips out of vogue is a sign that this is working. At this point, even fossil fuel investors are getting included in that stigmatization. But divestment also is increasingly a financial decision—fossil fuel companies experienced record-breaking losses in 2020, a trend that stands to continue. Ideally, funds that are no longer in fossil fuels would go into renewable energy, further helping the planet. As Cassie Cain, the youth engagement coordinator for Maine Climate Action Now, told News Center Maine: “If the fossil fuel industry has less political influence, hopefully, that will allow for more political decisions and funding to be going into renewable energy and things that will support a just transition off of fossil fuels.” Just and sustainable reinvestment is the necessary and simultaneous complement to fossil fuel divestment in any case.
Ultimately, divestment is about shaking off a dangerous fantasy that fossil fuel companies will somehow switch course before it’s truly too late. Maine’s decision to divest gives hope that the decades-long fight for ourselves and for our planet is working. It gives hope that all forms of pressure, starting with college campuses, can cause our most powerful institutions to come to terms with the financial and ethical volatility of the fossil fuel industry. Yes, Maine is just one state. But more will follow.