Students Push for Divestment from Fossil Fuels at Universities Across the Nation
Students across the nation are pushing their universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies in a coordinated strategy that hits dirty energy corporations where it matters most—their bottom line.
Last week students at Harvard University voted 72 percent in favor of divesting Harvard’s $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels in the first student-wide referendum of its kind. Students for a Just and Stable Future have been organizing the campaign since September, pressuring the university to withdraw their investments from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies.
Students gathered hundreds of signatures to get the referendum question on the ballot during the Harvard student government elections and were the first student group to do so in six years. The referendum makes fossil fuel divestment the official position of the Harvard College Undergraduate Council— but is not a binding vote that has the power to change the structure of the university’s endowment. Alli Welton, an organizer with Student for a Just and Stable Future helped gather the more than 1,000 petition signatures that made the ballot referendum possible.
“Students don’t have control over how Harvard invests its money,” Welton told Campus Progress. “It’s a very clear mandate from the undergraduate student body for our campaign to go ahead and continue trying to get the administration to talk with us about this issue, which they’ve been pretty reluctant to do so far … It seems like [the administration has] not taken the result of the referendum very seriously.”
Welton says Students for a Just and Stable Future are pushing for a meeting with Harvard President Drew Faust to take the next step toward concrete divestment from dirty energy.
Harvard’s divestment campaign is supported by the Better Future Project and 350.org— and is just a one piece the divestment movement that has spread across more than 50 campuses, including well-developed campaigns taking shape at Tufts, Syracuse, Brown, Cornell, and Amherst. The organizing effort is in conjunction with 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s ongoing “Do the Math” 21-city tour which is actively promoting divestment from fossil fuel companies.
In Maine, the Unity College Board of Trustees voted to divest from fossil fuels earlier this month in the first binding decision on divestment that the President of Unity College called “long overdue.” Last year Hampshire College also effectively divested from fossil fuels by passing a sustainable investment policy.
“There’s not a lot of power in one institution, no matter how big or small their endowment,” said Lisa Purdy, a student organizer with the Brandeis Divestment Campaign Coalition at Brandeis University. “So the idea that to make this worth-while we have to collaborate and depend on each other is part of the beauty of it too. We really need each other to make this thing work and to make an actual financial impact.”
The divestment campaigns taking off at higher education institutions across the country are modeled after the same divestment movement launched in the ‘80s to end apartheid in South Africa. And in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, students are using the renewed discussion on climate change to push for this as a moral imperative.
“[Climate change] is an issue that needs to be taken care of, and our political system isn’t taking care of it which is why we feel that divestment is really the right way to go at this point because people have tried for so long to get substantial political change through legislation and have failed every time because the impact of the fossil fuel lobby is so powerful.” Welton told Campus Progress. “Where our money is invested reflects our values as a community, and so there’s something really personal about thinking that my community supports global warming and the terrible human rights injustices that follow from that.”
Students involved in the divestment movement are quickly learning how to navigate university bureaucracies in order to apply pressure to the right administration leaders. Recently students at the University of New Hampshire found that their university’s investments are made by an outside company and that decisions regarding investments go through two different committees.
The Student Environmental Action Coalition at the University of New Hampshire received this message from the UNH Foundation reading after a small group of students met with leaders to discuss divestment: “The UNH Foundation’s primary responsibility as stewards of donor-endowed funds is to generate the maximum amount of return for UNH to support students, faculty and programs.”
Fiona Gettinger wrote this op-ed in the student newspaper, responding:
UNH cannot continue making all of its decisions only considering what is profitable instead of what is ethical. At what cost to society do we keep running business as we are? Would UNH invest in the drug trade or sex trafficking? Many of the fossil fuel corporations we believe UNH invests in break laws and regulations on a regular basis, and people are dying because of them. We know UNH would not want to invest in crimes against humanity, but the effects of burning fossil fuels rise to that level, so where and when do we draw the line?
University endowments total more than $400 billion overall. This kind of money, reinvested toward sustainable interests, would have more than a sizeable impact on dirty energy corporations. A divestment campaign comparable to the 1980s movement to end South African apartheid, coupled with direct action, has the power to steer the planet toward a sustainable future, but both types of activism depend on the energy and spark of the young people who lead them.
Millennials are using taking charge of their education to push beyond the simple slogans on sustainability that amount to greenwashing, and toward concrete action on climate change— a much-needed movement in a critical climate moment.
Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.