In the fight for a better world, universities are becoming critical sites of conflict. In the past year, graduate student unions from New York University to the University of California–Santa Cruz have gone on strike to demand basic cost-of-living adjustments in cities where skyrocketing rent is pushing working-class people to the fringes. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd last May, after intense pressure from the student body, the University of Minnesota cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. And at an ever-increasing clip, student organizers are successfully pushing their university administrations to divest from fossil fuels.
Far from being isolated sites of esoteric academic debate, universities must be seen for what they are: vast, powerful institutions with tens of thousands of students and workers, the actions of which have deep implications for both local communities and the rest of the world.
Campus climate organizers should approach their campaigns accordingly—and understand that the struggles of all radical campus movements are deeply intertwined in the fight for climate justice.
Currently, university-level “climate action” is understood almost exclusively in terms of mitigating carbon emissions, either on-site, through carbon neutrality planning, or elsewhere, through divestment. But this is not the full scope of action necessary to combat climate change, and limiting our framing in this way circumscribes our potential demands. While important, reducing local emissions and cutting the flow of capital to the fossil fuel industry represent only a partial strategy. A true commitment to climate justice is much broader: It necessarily entails building local resilience to climate impacts, and addressing universities’ roles in the full range of harms that intersect with the climate crisis, both local and global.
For example, in March, after nearly a decade of intense pressure from student organizers, the University of Michigan announced full divestment from fossil fuels. The week prior to the announcement, the university released its carbon neutrality plan—also the subject of intense pressure—which aims to achieve university-wide true carbon neutrality by 2040.
At first glance, it looks like UM is acknowledging its massive responsibility in mitigating the climate crisis and charting a bold path to make good on it—and indeed, these steps are monumental: Michigan’s endowment is the first of the world’s top 10 largest university endowments to divest.
But campus climate activists here and elsewhere should not be so easily satisfied.
While these victories are worth celebrating, neither reflect universities’ full capacity—or responsibility—to mobilize their resources to address the climate crisis, and neither are sufficient for advancing climate justice.
As climate organizers on the University of Michigan’s campus, we observed numerous examples of the dangerous implications of this incomplete framing in the creation of the university’s carbon neutrality plan. In addressing commuting emissions, for example, the plan focuses heavily on electric vehicle charging infrastructure—a strategy that is biased toward those wealthy enough to own electric vehicles and inattentive to the profound environmental injustices associated with lithium mining.
A more holistic, climate justice–informed approach, on the other hand, could address commuting emissions in a manner that simultaneously builds community resilience: by meaningfully addressing the housing crises that universities often produce.
Rapid growth and increasingly wealthy student bodies spur development of luxury student apartments and drive up local housing prices, which displaces lower-income residents, even pushing them out of their homes entirely. Unsurprisingly, houselessness increases vulnerability to climate impacts considerably—reducing housing precarity is thus a critical front of any climate justice campaign. By committing to building affordable, sustainable housing for students and staff, or better yet, by contributing annually to local affordable housing trust funds, universities can make meaningful progress toward this end.
This is but one example of a suite of tactics that would demonstrate a broader understanding of universities’ responsibility in the climate crisis. In 2017, the University of New Hampshire invested $3.06 million in their state’s community loan fund, which provides material support to marginalized communities in the form of small business and home ownership loans, for example. Or they can support local communities by providing long-term food and housing for houseless communities, or funding for energy efficiency and flood protection housing upgrades.
These initiatives constitute a critical component of universities’ fundamental responsibility to advance local climate justice. As probably one of the most powerful institutions in their communities, they have a duty to build community resilience by ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met. An honest commitment to advancing climate justice also extends far beyond addressing present, local harms. Universities must meaningfully account for their role in dispossession of Indigenous land and continued complicity in environmental racism perpetrated by investor-owned utilities, exploring material reparative action informed by the needs of oppressed communities.
And while divesting from the purveyors of climate catastrophe is crucial, doing so while maintaining investments in, for example, the prison industrial complex, or, in UM’s case, palm oil plantations implicated in horrific human rights abuses only enables the destruction that they purportedly have divested from. It’s not just fossil fuels, and it’s not just melting icebergs: Climate justice demands categorical divestment from all harm.
But that requires a fundamental reevaluation of university financial governance: Multibillion-dollar endowments should not be managed in secret by cloistered corporate boards; in determining how to mobilize resources for a just transition, students, faculty, staff, and the local community deserve a seat at the table.
The institutional intransigence of wealthy research institutions poses a daunting set of barriers. But these barriers are not insurmountable. Indeed, the success of recent student movements—not just in divestment—should indicate to organizers that sustained pressure can effect appreciable, sometimes profound, change.
But to push universities beyond the traditional focuses of campus climate organizing campaigns to address these interrelated harms, student organizers need to abide by a concomitantly broad approach to organizing. We need to reimagine the boundaries of the coalitions we can build.
Take graduate student labor organizing: In the past few decades, it has gained appreciable traction, all while increasingly engaging in the bargaining strategies that advance goals to benefit the broader community. These are powerful potential allies. Student climate organizers can—and have—also built power by working in solidarity with campus racial justice movements and other divestment movements. And organizers should look beyond the boundaries of the university, building relationships and trust with longtime community organizers with deep institutional knowledge—especially important because of the inherent challenge of sustaining a movement with an ephemeral student population.
Of course, the onus should not be on student organizers; administrations should relieve students of this unpaid burden of accountability by acting proactively to align their institutional policies with their espoused commitment to serving the common good. They should be taking drastic action to build resilience in their local communities; push toward a swift, just transition to a green, regenerative economy; and, more broadly, engage in efforts to redistribute their immense resources and power.
Divestment from fossil fuels and carbon neutrality are a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough—now is not a moment for partial measures; it is a moment for radical transformation.