Sophie Harrison was sitting in Stanford University’s library finalizing her senior thesis on climate policy when her phone buzzed with bad news. After making headlines as one of the first multi-billion endowments to divest from coal, Stanford’s administration had just rejected oil and gas divestment because “it could not evaluate whether the social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry outweighs the social benefit it provides.”
Two days later, shocked and disappointed, Sophie and her Fossil Free Stanford comrades gathered outside Stanford Memorial Church as their President discussed his inspirations for social change in a speech titled “What Matters to Me & Why.” The students’ message to him: climate change matters, and we are why.
Over the past five years, thousands of students like Sophie have called on their universities to divest from fossil fuels. With lawsuits, sit-ins, teach-ins, blockades, marches, meetings, negotiations, faculty letters, and alumni support, these students sent a clear message: if universities truly claim to invest in students’ futures, they must divest from fossil fuel companies that jeopardize those futures. In the face of this growing movement, many administrations continue to ignore students’ voices and reject divestment. This article asks students what they think, feel, and experience when their universities reject fossil fuel divestment and how they sustain the strength to move forward.
More Than Moving Money
For decades, fossil fuel corporations have captured the political process and thwarted climate policy. Grassroots climate action spreads, but not quickly enough to out-flank corporate influence. Meanwhile, the climate crisis grows more urgent.
In this context, the fossil fuel divestment movement sprang to life. It aims to challenge corporate power, achieve climate action, and grow the climate movement. Divestment stigmatizes the fossil fuel industry in order to degrade its political influence and legitimacy. With corporations on the defensive, opportunities for meaningful climate policy can emerge. Divestment also provides the foundation for broad-based inclusive action. Everyone is part of an institution with something to divest—from an alma mater’s endowment to a city or state pension fund. The fossil fuel divestment movement is about more than moving investors’ money.
On campuses, divestment also means more than the word technically denotes. For many students, it’s the way to engage their peers around climate change. As Jesse Baum, a former organizer with the University of Vermont’s divestment campaign, told me, “for students, this is probably the most direct way that you can combat the fossil fuel industry and collectivize your actions.” Alyssa Florack, a student organizer with Climate Justice at Boston College, added,“climate change isn’t really addressed on our campus in any other way.” Warren Beecroft from the University of Utah—a school with close ties to the fossil fuel industry—says, “climate efforts are almost non existent” on campus beyond the divestment drive.