Escalation Guide

How to shift your campaign up a gear

(or several) and win

You’re running a divestment campaign. You’ve picked your target and built a team, started a petition to build public support and planned your campaign, and you’ve been campaigning for a while. You’ve reached out to decision makers in your institution, but they just won’t move.

Maybe your target won’t speak to you at all, or perhaps they’re just not taking your campaign seriously. Sounds like it’s time to escalate.

Why escalate?

  • Increase pressure on targets where other tactics have failed
  • Keep the campaign fun and exciting for supporters and team members
  • Demonstrate your power and your refusal to back down

We can’t win just by persuading institutions to divest

Globally we’ve already won 700+ divestment commitments, worth over $5tn! But this is just a step towards our bigger aim – building a powerful movement to destroy the social acceptance of the fossil fuel industry and tackle climate change. We need to build mass public support and get lots of people confident to take action to build the growing public battle we need to win on the climate.

Define your own success

  • Make sure your action logic is one you can win – don’t say you’re going to shut down a meeting unless you think you can.
  • Define your action’s intended success by how much it builds your capacity to escalate further. Will it win you more members, superior resources, or enhanced legitimacy?

It’s time to turn up the heat

Escalation takes place throughout a successful campaign and can be anything from a petition delivery to an occupation. Your group should be constantly finding escalation points and ways to build power as your campaign moves forwards.

Find out: how to build your base, attract attention & build awareness, low level confrontationtake direct action and take a look at this handy action planning checklist

1. Building your base

Divestment campaigners

  • Run stalls at fairs, festivals and other local events to get contact details on your Fossil Free petition, talk to people, and tell them about your campaign.
  • Host your own events to bring people in. Think about talks with interesting speakers, film screenings, music nights. Use your skills and contacts to attract people and use the platform to explain more about, and invite people to join, your group.
  • Use your own networks to build support and promote your events.

The more people involved with your campaign and actively supporting it, the more you are already winning! The best way to get people involved is to plan a journey to take them on – not one event but a series, with plans to promote each one and then use it as a platform to attract more people to the next.

Campaigns often are surprised that they don’t win by persuading their opponents. In Umuarama, the team had contacted council members and found two supporters. They had even won nearby cities. But the city would just not move — a powerful state congressmen with fracking interests kept blocking the legislation.

They could have kept hitting their head against a wall meeting with more city council members. But their method of escalation? Holding public events, going to schools and giving presentations, and meeting with community and religious leaders. Eventually they persuaded a well-respected Catholic bishop to join the campaign, along with Aldermans, priests, and leaders of local unions.

With all this support, they staged a march on the day of their vote. Thousands filled City Hall. Overwhelmed by the show of support, the council voted for the ban unanimously — nobody wanted to be left out.

350 campaigners in Brazil

350 campaigners in Brazil

2. Stunts – attracting attention & building awareness

  • You could deliver your petition in a creative way, organise a banner drop, give a mock award to your target institution, stage a performance, or do some spoof advertising.
  • Banner making or creative workshops preparing for an action are great ways for the group to get to know each other.
  • Get creative, use your skillset, think about audience, and how people will see your event (media? Social media? While it’s happening?). You can find more action ideas here.

Swarthmore has one of the earliest student divestment campaigns. They started with the common tactics: meeting with the administrators (nothing) and meeting with board members (nothing). The college refused to divest.

They decided to try new actions to build awareness, like getting a petition signed by the majority of the college campus! They dropped banners across campus. They even organized a walk-out where students and faculty walked out of class and went to an all-college teach-in about divestment.

They kept escalating and building awareness, eventually getting the faculty to call for divestment from all fossil fuels.

In the end, they never won on divestment. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t win. Their campaign encouraged other students to run divestment campaigns — and at each step they persuaded and educated new people about the problems with the fossil fuel industry. They got faculty, students, and hundreds of people understanding that the fossil fuel industry is wrecking our climate and our planet.

In that way, their “loss” was more important than if they had quickly, but silently, won without having to convince as many people!

Swathmore student divestment protest, USA. Photo: Ian Holloway

3. Low level confrontation

Local campaigners growing their power opposing gas extraction in Groningen, Netherlands

Local campaigners growing their power opposing gas extraction in Groningen, Netherlands

When you’ve engaged people, got them to meetings and built up momentum, you can think a little bigger.

  • You might be able to organise a rally, march, parade or a vigil.
  • Thinking more creatively, you could stage a die in, a silent protest, or ‘haunt’ your targets by following them around.
  • Make a ‘Yes Men’ type announcement your target is divesting for all the reasons you say they should, by pretending to be them!
  • Boycotts, strikes or walkouts can be powerful.
    Think about symbolic acts, like turning your back, or by turning down awards or honours from your target institution.
  • You could get someone high profile, with a connection to your target, to withdraw their cooperation, like an artist removing their work from a gallery, a business moving their account from a bank, or a famous person returning or turning down their honorary degree.


Fossil Free Berlin had been campaigning for some time when they finally got the finance senator to agree to look into divestment. But they waited months and got nowhere.

Luckily a contact from the Green party told them that divestment had made it into a 300 page report for a political committee looking at working on new green energy for Berlin. It was only a small mention, but this gave them the opportunity they needed. The report was being presented at a meeting which the group attended. When divestment was mentioned, they all stood up and applauded, cheering, wearing their divestment t-shirts, and with more t-shirts which they gave out to councillors. It was a very positive confrontation which really helped them get over their hump, get their target’s attention and take things forwards.

The group went on to use the end of an elected term to ramp up pressure. They used tactics like printing out their petition onto huge bank notes, conducting a social media campaign, making connections with local NGOs and talking directly to the politicians themselves. And they won! The group is still going strong, moving onto other divestment targets in the city. They make sure to make time to eat and socialise together to keep their group strong and their spirits up.


Fossil Free Berlin

4. Taking direct action

#STOPMCEDD France April 2016

Make space for rejuvenation when you’re engaged in escalation
It is wise to take a step back if we are feeling exhausted, rest and come back when we feel rejuvenated. You can find some excellent guidance on how to stay active for the long haul at

Only move into this space if you’ve had some training in non-violent direct action, you’ve planned well and thought through the risks, and you feel comfortable going ahead.

The risks are high but the benefits are also great – at their best, confrontational actions can shift power and lead to big wins.

The objective of direct action to confront your target is to disrupt things as much as possible. You’re aiming to make your protest impossible to ignore.

  • You could occupy a key building or area; stage a stand in or sit in.
  • You could build a barricade or stage a lock on, blockading a building to stop staff accessing it or preventing an event from going ahead.
  • If you’re up for personal sacrifice, some or one of you could stage a hunger strike.
  • The Ruckus Society has some great resources and ideas for actions, and the tactic star in their action strategy guide is useful.
  • It’s important to know your legal rights. If you’re in Deutschland we’ve made a legal guide for you; in the UK check out the resources of Green and Black Cross. We will continue to update this section with more guides for different countries.

If you need staff support you can find all the European staff contact details here

Universities have been a major thrust of the divestment movement. But groups may find that even after doing all of the above, it is not enough to move their institutions. Then we turn to direct action.

Take the University of Edinburgh. Students had presented a survey showing the vast majority of students supported divestment, and organised on campus with pickets, marches, rallies, banner-drops, and die-ins. But the university steadfastly refused their demands.

The university gave the typical response: they need more time, they’d rather engage with the companies, and that it’s not financially viable.

If they had jumped into confrontational tactics right away, they may have lost the support of their base and media. But they had exhausted all the traditional institutions (formal meetings, student council, etc) — and so the students decided it was time to escalate: They occupied the university’s management offices — and held stayed for 10-days.

It doesn’t always happen this way — often pressure needs to be maintained. But immediately after the sit-in, the university changed its mind. Three years after their campaign started, they won!

Divestment action in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Action planning checklist

1. What is the action? How confrontational is it?

2. Why are you doing this? Be clear about your target, audience, and how this fits with your strategy. How will it help build power and momentum, bringing more people into your next action?

3. Where and when are you holding the action? Where will you meet on the day?

4. What resources do you need? Who is responsible for sorting these?

5. What are the safety and legal implications of this action. Assess the risks and decide how to deal with them. Do you need someone to liaise with police / security? Or a legal observer?

6. How will you document the event? Who will take pictures?

7. What media are you inviting? What’s your key message? Is there a social media plan?

8. How will you engage the public, passers by, or staff of any building you’re picketing? Would a leaflet be useful to explain what you’re doing?

9. What could go wrong? Do you have a contingency plan?

10. How will you debrief afterwards?