During the past semester, students at over 150 university campuses across the United States demanded that their universities divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.
The campaign is being spearheaded by climate change activist Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org. The group asks that universities divest their endowment portfolios from the 200 companies with the most carbon in oil, gas, and coal reserves—including companies like Severstal, Lukoil, and BP. These companies not only profit off of fossil fuels, but also lobby for fossil fuel subsidies and low regulation on the industry.
In Boston, the student group Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) is working with 350.org and a community anti-climate-change group called Better Future Project to coordinate campaigns at universities ranging from Boston University to Harvard.
Perhaps due to the power of 350.org, the university divestment movement has already caught the attention of national media, including the New York Times. In November, Bill McKibben and other public figures, including writer-activist Naomi Klein, traveled around the country on a “Do the Math” tour, staging hugely-attended rallies to raise consciousness about the urgency of climate change in over 20 cities.
On the way, McKibben is publicizing figures he says come from financial analysis from the UK. He notes that it would take only 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the Earth’s temperature to rise two degrees Celsius, an unsafe level. Yet fossil fuel companies and fuel-rich countries currently have oil, coal, and other reserves containing about 2795 gigatons of carbon. By targeting corporations, McKibben hopes that fossil fuels companies will pledge not to burn the majority of their reserves, as well as to halt lobbying for subsidies.
But behind the scenes of McKibben’s showy campaign, student organizers have been working hard on their own campuses, building student awareness and talking to university administrators about divestment.
In New England, SJSF, which has campus chapters representing more than 15 universities, has coordinated student efforts around campaigns to solve the climate crisis since the group was founded in 2009. In the past three years, SJSF organized with students around Boston to lobby the Massachusetts Statehouse for clean energy bills. Last year, they engaged in activism ranging from campus leafleting to civil disobedience to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a project proposed by oil companies to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas.
Alli Welton, a sophomore at Harvard and member of SJSF, says that the group was planning a campaign around fossil fuel subsidies last summer when they were approached by an organizer from 350.org about a university divestment campaign. She says that SJSF “spent a couple of days at the end of August planning and figuring out what we wanted to do” before students headed back to their own campuses to begin the first fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the country.
There are multiple reasons the 350.org campaign targeted universities. First, university endowments, which often number in the billions of dollars, were the site of a successful campaign in the 1980s for divestment fromthe apartheid government in South Africa. In addition, students are often aware that their universities’ practices often do not align with what they learn in classes about ethics and policy. Emily Kirkland, an environmental studies and economics major at Brown and activist with the Brown Divest Coal campaign, says that “everything I learn in my classes is connected to Divest Coal and vice versa. I have a grasp on the finance aspects of what divestment means and the policy aspects of the environmental side.”
At many colleges, environmentalist groups are funded by the university itself. Kirkland notes, “most of the other [environmental] groups focus on energy efficiency and conservation on campus, doing things to decrease waste, recycling. We’re thinking about the bigger picture politically.” While divestment campaigns may not be what student environmentalists are used to, those involved in fossil fuel divestment campaigns say that, in general, students on their campuses are enthusiastic about divestment. A student referendum at Harvard showed that 72% of voting students approved of the university divesting from fossil fuels.
In some instances campus administrators have been receptive to student demands. In Maine, Unity College has already declared that it will divest, and other universities may follow suit soon. Last week, Middlebury’s President announced that the liberal-arts college would begin looking at the possibility of divestment. Meanwhile, Lisa Purdy, a junior at Brandeis, is optimistic about the Brandeis Divestment Campaign Coalition’s call for divestment, as they have not yet faced much pushback. Purdy says, “The university might support it. But we have to show that there’s a lot of student support and it’s something that students care about.”
Other students have not had as much luck. John Griese, a sophomore at Boston University, says his university has not even acquiesced to a multi-year campaign for the creation of a committee for socially responsible investment, let alone divestment from fossil fuels. He says, “Our administration kind of just said, ‘no, good luck with that.’ And then left it at that.”
But for Griese and others, the divestment movement is about more than simply hurting fossil fuel companies. Griese got involved in activism through Students Occupy Boston last fall, andsees the national campaign for fossil fuel divestment as one piece of a larger push. “What we really want to do is make a coherent coalition between many schools in Boston and regionally, to tackle not just climate change but many environmental and social justice issues,” Griese said.
Griese is not the only student who sees the fossil fuel divestment campaign as just one part of a broader effort. As Alli Welton described it, “At the end of October there was a day of action… that was the first taste of a national-movement feel for the fossil fuel divestment campaign because we had 18 schools across the country doing something on the same day. Now we have over 150 campuses… it’s got that sense of national solidarity.”
The fossil fuel divestment movement is still young, and whether it will succeed at toppling fossil fuel corporations is still uncertain. But for U.S. students, organizing around university endowments may be the first step to a new movement that really seeks to tackle climate change both inside and outside the classroom.