Fossil Fuel Divestment Debates on Campus Spotlight Societal Role of Colleges and Universities
By Jennie C. Stephens
As a new academic year begins after a summer of deadly heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods, many college students and faculty are debating whether and how to get involved in climate politics.
Climate advocacy has become well established on U.S. campuses over the past decade, in diverse forms. More than 600 colleges and universities have signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment. Schools are expanding interdisciplinary teaching and research in environmental studies, sustainability science and climate resilience, and investing in "greening" their campuses. And many activists on campuses around the country are participating in global campaigns like "Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice" and "Keep it in the Ground."
One of the most controversial strategies is campaigning for schools to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies. Campus divestment is widely viewed as mainly a student cause. But when I analyzed the movement with Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Yale (now Stanford) graduate student Leehi Yona, we found widespread faculty support for divestment. For example, in a survey at Harvard in spring 2018, 67 percent of faculty respondents supported divestment, while only 9 percent were opposed and 24 percent were neutral.
So far, however, only about 150 campuses worldwide have committed to fossil fuel divestment—and less than a third of those are in the U.S. Why so few? I see two reasons. First, divestment is controversial because it acknowledges the need for radical change. Second, there is a disconnect in institutional priorities between administrators on one side and faculty and students on the other side.
A Growing Global Movement
Fossil fuel divestment is intended to stigmatize the industry and hold companies accountable for opposing action to slow climate change and for their strategic misinformation campaign designed to confuse the public about climate science and the risks of climate change.
To date, more than 800 institutions with assets valued at more than $6 trillion have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. They include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Guardian Media Group and the World Council of Churches.
New York City has set a goal of divesting its pension funds from fossil fuel companies by 2023. And in July 2018, the Irish parliament passed a bill making Ireland the first country in the world to divest from fossil fuels.
Check out our Open Letter to President Brown, who has rejected us 16 times. #DivestBU https://t.co/20nnjII7q5— Divest BU (@Divest BU)1487739757.0
Student and Faculty Support
Our analysis of campus support for divestment focused on 30 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. We reviewed the number and type of faculty at these schools who had signed publicly available letters endorsing fossil fuel divestment. More than 4,550 faculty had taken such positions, representing all major disciplines and fields. They included 30 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and two Nobel laureates. These findings suggest that faculty engagement in the divestment movement is broader than generally realized.
Faculty support reflects concern about fossil fuel companies' negative influence in our political system, in our increasingly unequal economy and in public understanding of science. Faculty are also concerned about the industry's direct influence over research and teaching within higher education.
A wide array of U.S. schools, ranging from large state universities to prestigious elite institutions such as Harvard and MIT, have received financial support from individuals or foundations whose wealth comes from fossil fuels. Many professors and students are concerned about how these relationships constrain campus research, inquiry and conversation about responses to climate change and the need for radical change in energy systems.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces on Jan. 10, 2018, that the city will seek to divest its pension funds from fossil fuel holdings by 2023. City of New York
Resisting Calls to Divest
So why have leaders at institutions like Harvard, Swarthmore and Middlebury resisted faculty and student calls to divest? Many administrators cite their fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns on endowment investments. However, a recent study that compared financial performance of investment portfolios with and without fossil fuel companies from 1927-2016 found that fossil fuel divestment did not reduce investment portfolio performance.
Administrators also often contend that their school's investments should not be politicized. They say the endowment is not an appropriate lever for social change. But there is no such thing as an apolitical investment. Every investment does, in fact, influence change in one way or another. Many schools are now implicitly acknowledging this by developing guidelines for socially or environmentally responsible investing.
Senior administrators may also fear alienating important university constituents who are connected to the fossil fuel industry. They may feel a need to protect direct or indirect funding from fossil fuel companies for academic programs, or to maintain a non-threatening environment for board members with fossil fuel interests.
Higher education administrators also resist calls to divest because they recognize the potential for campus activists to call for divesting from other ethically challenged businesses, including tobacco and firearms. As social impact investing grows, it is not clear whether or how fossil fuel energy companies will be integrated.
Colleges and Universities as Citizens
The core missions of our institutions of higher education are to generate knowledge and educate citizens and leaders. Many schools also embrace a third role: addressing pressing social issues, whether through research and teaching or other strategies—for example, protecting undocumented students from the Trump administration's aggressive enforcement of immigration law.
Education scholars have argued that all universities transmit powerful educational messages far beyond their specific teaching and research activities. Concepts of "universities as citizens" or "universities as change agents" capture the potential for universities to be active, contributing, influential and responsive members of society. Higher education thought leader Richard Freeland and many others have argued that colleges and universities have a responsibility to cultivate civic responsibility and citizenship via a scholarship of public engagement.
As disruptions linked to climate change become more intense, many faculty and students are asking why their schools are not explicitly incorporating their strategic societal priorities into financial decisions and investment portfolios. Under the Trump administration, standing up against misinformation about climate change takes on greater urgency.
That's why I believe fossil fuel divestment raises important questions about the changing role and responsibilities of higher education in society. At this moment in human history, education must engage with how to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. Divestment debates are forcing colleges and universities to reconsider how to contribute to a more resilient and sustainable future.
How Bill McKibben’s Radical Idea of Fossil-Fuel Divestment Transformed the Climate Debate https://t.co/NDON6OKOT2… https://t.co/Hms9DMfUKg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1513096177.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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