By Alli Welton and Ben Thompson
In the 1980s, apartheid was an injustice too terrible to be ignored. Today, global warming is the tremendous injustice that demands our generation to unite and take action. Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, made history last Monday when it was revealed to students that its endowment is currently free of fossil fuels after an earlier responsible investment shift, just as it made history thirty-five years ago as the first of many schools to divest from companies that supported apartheid in South Africa. Now the rest of us must join together on our campuses and across the country to fight for divestment from fossil fuels so we can take down the climate crisis as students before us took down apartheid.
Students are already calling for divestment from coal, oil, and natural gas companies at roughly thirty schools, from Lewis & Clark in Portland, OR, to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Unfortunately, the administration at many of these schools have not yet followed Hampshire’s example of bold ethical leadership. At Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, for instance, President Faust declared that she would not use the endowment to fight climate change. At Boston University in Boston, MA, President Brown all but refused to even meet with students to discuss the proposal.
We see that fossil fuel divestment will not be an easy battle, but it will be worth the effort. Higher education endowments represent $400 billion across the U.S., a substantial sum of money to withhold from oil, gas and coal companies. Our institutions can send a powerful message to the financial community and the world, signaling to investors that fossil fuels are a dying industry they should divest from quickly because our generation will not stand for a world powered by deadly energy.
Furthermore, divestment campaigns are a labor of love for our communities. Fossil fuel companies are inherently risky investments that higher education institutions would be wise to avoid. As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, made clear this summer in his article in Rolling Stone, we can only burn 565 gigatons more carbon before going over the UN-sanctioned 2 degree upper limit for warming, but the share prices of fossil fuel companies reflect the 2795 gigatons stored in their reserves underground. That carbon cannot be burnt—the facade will fall away eventually, society will realize that those gigatons must remain underground and fossil fuel stocks will tank. Universities lost up to 30 percent of their endowments when the housing bubble burst in 2008 and stocks crashed, resulting in budget constraints, job slashing and painful cuts to financial aid. Our schools cannot afford to suffer similar losses a second time when the carbon bubble bursts.
Divestment has the potential to unite us across our campuses and create a national student movement. We are all tired of trying to work within the political system where far too many politicians are the lapdogs of Big Coal and Big Oil rather than the guardians of the public interest. We are all sick of wasting hours negotiating with our administrations to win funding for energy-saving light bulbs only to turn around and see our planet still hurtling over the edge. It is time to directly attack the corporations responsible for the climate crisis. Through divestment, we can start to take away some of the wealth and thus the power of the corporate fossil fuel tyrants. And by uniting students across the country in this fight, we will create a national student movement so powerful that politicians will not be able to ignore us when it comes time to take on Washington.
This will be the chapter in the climate movement’s history when we finally start to win. Join us.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE for more related news on this topic.
Alli Welton is an undergraduate student at Harvard College and Ben Thompson is a graduate student at Boston University. Both are members of Students for a Just and Stable Future, a student-led organization partnering with Better Future Project and 350.org on university divestment campaigns. Join our national day of action for fossil fuel divestment on October 24th or learn more about starting a divestment campaign at your school at www.divestforourfuture.org or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.