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Northern California Students Call for Freedom From Fossil Fuels

Political support for divestment grows as more campuses and cities join the movement

Student groups at more than 60 colleges and universities across the country hosted events last Thursday, May 2, declaring “fossil freedom” as part of 350.org’s Fossil Freedom Day of Action. The “Day of Action” was meant to highlight the work students — often in partnership with alumni, faculty, and administrators — have done over the past six months to persuade their institutions to divest from fossil fuels.

College students demand fossil fuel divestment Photo courtesy 350.orgStudents say the fossil fuel divestment campaign gives them the opportunity to take action
on climate change.

The largest event took place at the steps of San Francisco City Hall, where I joined other students from around Bay Area in a rally with 350.org founder Bill McKibben and city supervisors who recently voted unanimously to push the city’s pension fund to divest $583 million from the fossil fuel industry. San Francisco was inspired to work towards divestment because of the student movement. Now they’re helping students push our colleges and universities to divest.

Fossil Free SFSU, San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) divestment campaign, hosted the Bay Area event. The group collaborated with 350.org and colleges and universities all over Northern California to create a student-led event dubbed “Divest the West To Lead the Rest!” Students carried signs depicting the various regions of the United States, with California color-coded in rainbow stripes.

"I think California has amazing potential. We have multiple universities and an extremely diverse population that can lead this movement. Fossil Freedom is for everyone!" said Alex Ansari of Fossil Free SFSU.

Having been part of the national movement to divest from fossil fuels since last year, most students wanted to close out the school year with a bang. “One! We are the movement! Two! We want divestment! Three! We will not let rest; we have the power!” chanted the crowd, that included students from the University of San Francisco, City College of San Francisco, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

Student leaders across the region are "fighting to highlight the insanity that the institutions that invest so much in our future leaders are also investing in the destruction of that future. And that's why we've gathered here today,” said Deirdre Smith, the West Coast organizer for 350.org

The Fossil Free SFSU campaign is “made up of mostly soon-to-be graduates, and I mention that because collectively there's this feeling sitting in our classes year after year that we can't do anything about this,” said Nick Cicchetti, an Environmental Studies major at SFSU. “We're getting all this information [about climate change] daily and we don't have a platform to voice our concerns and our opinions. And this organization, 350 … came to our school in February via the West Coast organizers like Deirdre and presented this campaign to us. And we sort of hit the ground running with that, and it all happened very fast.”

As Earth Island Journal reported last year, 350.org kicked off a fossil fuel divestment campaign in November 2012, urging colleges and universities to divest their endowments. Based on the anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s, “Fossil Free” has spread to over 300 colleges and universities in the last six months. Two hundred fossil fuel companies have been identified as posing the greatest threat to climate change.

So far, four colleges — Sterling, Unity, Hampshire, and College of the Atlantic — have committed to divest their endowments. Students have met with their boards of trustees to push for divestment on over 50 campuses and passed student body resolutions supporting the move on more than 30 campuses, including SFSU. More board meetings are scheduled for the coming weeks.

The action on campus has sparked some incredible progress off-campus, as well. Last week, nine mayors across the country joined San Francisco and Seattle (which divested last December) to announce that they would be pursuing fossil fuel divestment. The cities include: Eugene, OR, Berkeley, CA, Richmond, CA, Boulder, CO, Santa Fe, NM, Bayfield, WI, Madison, WI, Ithaca, NY, and State College, PA.

There is still much more work to do: Each of these cities will need to follow through with their commitment to keep their city funds out of fossil fuels and push their state pension funds to fully divest, but these mayoral commitments are a great start, as it shows that the divestment campaign is beginning to gain the political support needed to leave a lasting impact

The campaigns are also beginning pick up momentum with new tactics. Recently, students at the Rhode Island School of Design participated in the first sit-in for divestment. Frustrated that their demand for divestment wasn’t being heard, they occupied the school president’s office and dropped a banner out the window that read: “We may be art students, but we can still do the math.”

The movement is also spreading abroad, to countries like Australia and Canada.

"This is exactly what the start of big movements look like,” said Bill McKibben at the Thursday rally. “When people 50 years from now from Stanford and at SFSU and every place else – when they're teaching the course on social movements in the 2010s, your guys’ pictures are going be in the textbooks. … That’s if we make it 50 years intact. That’s what we got to work on.”

The fossil fuel divestment campaign is part of a larger grassroots effort that recognizes that if the worst impacts of climate change are to be avoided, the majority of known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned, and companies and nations need to avoid locking in greenhouse gas emissions by divesting from fossil fuel infrastructure.

"This is pretty simple math. The math is if you're invested in the fossil fuel industry, that you are profiting off the wreckage of the climate,” McKibben noted. “You are making a bet that nothing will ever be done to stop the slowdown of climate change. If anything is ever done, it will put those investments at risk. The perversity of that is stunning.”

(Indeed, Naomi Klein – also involved in the divestment campaign – wrote in an article last Wednesday, that several environmental organizations continue to behave as if they have a stake in the fossil fuel industry. With their endowments from fossil fuel companies, big green groups are "literally part owners of the industry causing the crisis they are purportedly trying to solve," she wrote.)

"Some people say that we cannot afford to divest. But we'll tell them at this pivotal time in earth's history, when there is this much at stake, we cannot afford to continue to invest in fossil fuel companies and the destruction of our planet,” said Sophie Harrison, a Stanford student.

Our action on Thursday was just as the invitation sent out to supporters had stated – “a powerful uniting force to help us tell our collective story, demonstrate our growing strength, breathe life into new campaigns, and give established campaigns a chance to take it to the next level.”

Daniel Adel, Contributor, Earth Island JournalDaniel Adel photo
Daniel Adel, a former Earth Island Journal intern, is studying Environmental Studies, with concentration in Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice, at San Francisco State University.

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