A new campaign to push colleges and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry has spread like wildfire to over 190 campuses across the country in just over a month. Now, as students head home for the holidays, organizers are celebrating some significant early victories and looking forward to a busy spring semester.
“2012 was the hottest year in American history—drought, wildfire, storm, we had it all,” said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, one of the organizations leading the new divestment campaign. “But 2013 is going to be the hottest year on American campuses in a very long time, because students have done the math, connected the dots and gotten down to the hard work of divesting from the fossil fuel companies at the root of our trouble.”
In a speech on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) commended students for getting involved in the campaign, “These students are imploring their schools to weigh the real cost of climate change against the drive for more financial returns, and divest from the polluters. With American college and university endowments estimated to total more than $400 billion, this movement by students deserves significant attention.”
Two small schools, Unity College and Hampshire College, have already divested their endowments from fossil fuels. Unity College President Stephen Mulkey wrote in a blog post announcing the decision, “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.”
In the last month, a growing number of other colleges and universities are beginning to take the divestment debate seriously:
Harvard has met student demands to set up a “social choice fund” for alumni donations and President Faust has agreed to discuss divestment with students next semester. In November, an official student resolution supporting divestment passed with 72 percent of the vote.
Swarthmore, where student efforts were recently profiled in The New York Times, also just launched a new process to look into investing its endowment more responsibly.
At Bryn Mawr, the CFO of the college told students that the endowment was invested in only a couple fossil fuel companies and divestment should be doable.
Middlebury recently disclosed that it has 3.6 percent of its endowment invested in fossil fuels and is launching a formal process this January to consider divestment.
Students at Bates, Bowdoin, Earlham, the University of Wisconsin, the University of New Hampshire, the University of North Carolina and elsewhere have also opened up dialogues with their administrations.
With significant media coverage in The New York Times, Time, MSN Finance, Rolling Stone and more, the campaign is also beginning to make an impact in economic circles.
“The speed at which this campaign has spread is causing ripples in the investment community,” said Andy Behar, the CEO of As You Sow, a campaign partner that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy and coalition building. “We anticipate more ‘carbon free’ investment options coming onto the market over the coming months for endowments, foundations, and other institutional investors who want to move investment dollars to build a clean-energy future.”
According to endowment experts, fossil fuel divestment won’t necessarily result in negative financial impacts for a college.
“We’re looking forward to working with students and others to show college administrators that divestment isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s both practical and responsible, as well,” said Dan Apfel, executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a campaign partner. “It’s time for colleges to build fossil free portfolios that have strong returns on investment and help move us towards us a sustainable future.”
In fact, colleges have lots of profitable, sustainable investment options at their disposal.
“If instead of propping up Shell or BP, a college invests in, say, more efficient lighting or heating, the median return on investment is 28 percent,” wrote Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, in an oped for The Boston Globe. “Best of all, this kind of investment supports the educational mission of a campus instead of undermining it.”
The divestment campaign is also beginning to reach city and state governments. Earlier this November, the mayor of Seattle committed to working on divesting city funds from fossil fuels. City council members and activists in a handful of other cities are beginning to work on sample resolutions that could be adopted across the country. In Vermont, two state representatives are discussing legislation that would divest the state from the industry.
“After voting in record numbers in 2012, students are seizing on divestment as a strategy to put climate firmly on the political agenda,” said Maura Cowley, the executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, another campaign partner. “Young people don’t just want schools to divest themselves from the fossil fuel industry, they also want their political leaders to untangle themselves from these corporations that are wrecking our future.”
As students prepare for the semester ahead, they are studying the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In November, they received the blessing of one of that movement’s key leaders, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“The divestment movement played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. The corporations understood the logics of money even when they weren’t swayed by the dictates of morality,” said Tutu in a video for the campaign. “Climate change is a deeply moral issue too, of course…. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.”
If the last month is any indication, that pressure is beginning to be felt.
For more on the divestment movement, check out “Climate Activists Hit Hard With ‘Do the Math’ National Tour.”