Over 180 campuses across the country have joined a new campaign from 350.org calling on colleges and universities to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry, estimated at a total of $400 billion nationwide.
The campaign is being sparked by Bill McKibben and 350.org’s “Do The Math” tour, an effort to connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change and the fossil fuel industry. The 21-city tour kicked off on Nov. 7, 2012, in Seattle and sold out many venues it’s visited.
“We've felt serious momentum along this transcontinental roadshow -- but the numbers of full-on divestment campaigns got larger faster than we could have dreamed,” said McKibben. “A year notable for ice-melt, parched crops and superstorms is going out with a different kind of bang: an explosion in activism, aimed squarely at the rogue fossil fuel industry.”
From big state schools like the University of Michigan to small liberal arts colleges like Amherst, students have taken up the cause. At a number of schools, such as Swarthmore, students have already met with their boards of trustees to discuss proposals; at others, like the University of New Hampshire, activists have gathered thousands of petition signatures calling for action. Earlier this month, an official Harvard student resolution supporting divestment passed with 72 percent of the vote.
“Students are the sleeping giant that rose to end apartheid and fight for many other just causes,” wrote Harvard sophomore Alli Welton in a blog for The Nation. “Now more and more students are mobilizing against business as usual in the fossil fuel industry.”
Hurricane Sandy, and the string of extreme weather events that preceded it, have provided a new sense of urgency for many student activists. At a Do The Math tour stop in Los Angeles, over 100 students from the five Claremont Colleges rallied with a banner that read “Hurricane Sandy Says: Divest the West.”
The Go Fossil Free campaign is specifically calling for institutions to immediately freeze new investments in the 200 corporations that hold the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves and divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.
The effort has scored a number of early victories. At the Do The Math tour stop in Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn committed to studying how the city could divest from fossil fuels. Just days later, Unity College in Maine announced that it would divest its entire endowment from fossil fuels.
“I am proud to be a part of the 350.org program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees for their willingness to make this affiliation,” wrote Unity College President Stephen Mulkey in an oped announcing the move. “Like the colleges and universities of the 1980s that disinvested from apartheid South African interests – and successfully pressured the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system – we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios.”
Over 155 colleges and universities, and dozens of states, cities and pension funds, eventually divested from apartheid South Africa. The current fossil fuel divestment effort has received the blessings from one of the anti-apartheid movement’s greatest champions, 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. Here in Africa we see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they’ve done nothing to cause the situation. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.”
For McKibben and 350.org, the impetus for the new divestment campaign was a series of reports that laid out the terrifying new math of the climate crisis. To keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a target the United States and nearly every other country on Earth has agreed to, scientists say we can emit roughly 500 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fossil fuel industry, however, has over 2,700 gigatons of CO2 stored in their reserves, more than five times too much.
“What this math shows is that the fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry,” said McKibben. “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both.”
The fossil fuel divestment campaign is led by a coalition including 350.org, the Energy Action Coalition, the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Sierra Student Coalition, and As You Sow.
For tips how you can start a divestment campaign on your own campus – and for resources to urge your Alma Mater – visit 350.org’s resources page.