Campus Environmentalists Are Pushing their Schools to Divest from the Fossil Fuel Industry

Youth campaigns hope to replicate the success of the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 80s

On November 5, as most Americans were glued to their TV and computer screens following election-eve news, a tiny environmental college in Maine did a momentous thing: It became the first institution of higher education in the United States to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Brown Univ Divest CoalStudents at Brown University are asking the school’s president to divest its $2.5 billion endowment from
the 15 US coal companies with the worst environmental and social records.

“We must be willing to lead by example,” wrote Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College in Unity, Maine. “The colleges and universities of this nation have billions invested in fossil fuels. Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical.”

Unity’s decision was the first victory for the rapidly growing campus movement calling for colleges and universities to cut their investment ties to oil, gas, and coal companies. There are active campaigns underway on 47 campuses across the US, with new schools joining the fight every week. Divestment campaigns are happening everywhere: at small liberal arts colleges and huge state universities, art schools and engineering schools, obscure hippy colleges and some of the country’s best known institutions. The divestment campaigns have received a new jolt of energy in recent weeks as Bill McKibben and 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour promotes fossil fuel divestment as a central strategy for challenging the power of the carbon barons. “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage,” McKibben told students at his alma mater, Harvard, last week.

At Brown University, where I’m a senior, we’re asking our university’s president to divest our $2.5 billion endowment from the 15 US coal companies with the worst environmental and social records. We’ve seen an incredible amount of student support for our campaign. Since September, we’ve had more than 70 people volunteer on the effort. Dozens of people show up for our weekly planning meetings, rain or no rain, midterms or no midterms. Some 1,600 students have already signed our petition calling for a coal divestment, and we’ve met twice with our university president, Christina Paxson, and with a committee charged with overseeing Brown’s endowment. We’re hoping the committee will vote to recommend coal divestment to Brown’s president and board of trustees at its next meeting, scheduled for November 26.

Alli Wenton, a coordinator for Harvard’s divestment effort, said their campaign has experienced a similar level of student interest. “It keeps growing,” she said. “The group has exploded this year.” Last week, Harvard students voted on a divestment measure in a campus referendum. The measure won overwhelming approval, with 72 percent of student voters calling for the university’s massive $26 billion endowment to shed its fossil fuel industry stocks.

It makes sense that college students are spearheading the fossil fuel divestment efforts. Young people recognize that the fossil fuel industry is unparalleled in the damage it does to human lives and the environment. Oil, natural gas, and coal cause thousands of unnecessary deaths each year as a result of toxic air pollution. Deep-water drilling, fracking, and mountaintop removal can devastate fragile ecosystems and put the health of local community members at risk.

Most pressingly, oil, gas, and coal are responsible for global climate change, which many students see as the single largest challenge facing our generation. Global warming has been a problem our entire lives, and yet we’ve never known anything but disappointment and delay. I wasn’t even born when Al Gore first raised the problem of climate change on the floor of the US Senate. When the Kyoto Protocol was signed, I was still watching Sesame Street. Like my fellow students, I’m scared about the future of the planet I’ll inherit, and I’m tired of waiting for my political leaders to take action. The divestment campaigns offer students the opportunity to take action right on their own campuses.

The divestment campaigns confront the immense power of the fossil fuel industry in two important ways. First, there is the direct attack on their financial market position. If enough colleges and universities pull their money out of coal, oil and gas stocks, the share price of fossil fuel companeis could drop. Hopefully, this will create a riple effect. Divestment exposes fossil fuel companies as risky investments, thereby convincing banks and hedge funds to stop providing the financial backing that these companies need. The second, and related, attack has to do with political perceptions. The divestment campaigns seek to crack into the fossil fuel industry’s image of inevitability — the specious idea that just because we’ve fueled our economy one way for 150 years, we’ll keep fueling our economy the same way for the next 150 years. By showing the depth of support for action on global warming, divestment encourages legislators to take steps to promote clean energy. Such campaigns have worked in the past, as in the 1980s when divestment campaigns on college campuses helped turn the tide against apartheid in South Africa.

At Brown, we’re asking President Paxson to divest from the “Filthy Fifteen,” a group of US coal companies known for their environmental and social abuses. The list includes both coal mining companies and electric utilities that depend heavily on coal. Coal is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and divestment from these companies is something that Brown can do to confront global warming right now.

I think the campus divestment efforts could be the beginning of something big. Perhaps future generations will remember 2012 as the year that Americans finally got serious about climate change. Hopefully university divestment will be part of the reason why. It’s a bold vision, perhaps even an over-optimistic one. But my friends and I are young still — 19, 20, 21 years old. If we’re not going to be optimistic, who is?

A previous version of this report incorrectly located Unity College in Bangor, Main. It’s located in Unity, Main.

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