The Case for Fossil-Fuel Divestment

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All this means that climate is no longer a fringe concern. Seventy-four percent of Americans said global warming was affecting the weather.  On campus, opinion is near-unanimous. "For one of my classes I just did a poll," says Stanford freshman Sophie Harrison, a leader in the divestment fight. "Out of 200 people I only found three who didn't believe in climate change."

Meanwhile, the scientists keep pushing their research forward. Twenty-five years ago, they were predicting the trouble we're seeing now; when they look forward another quarter century, things get truly scary – and academics get much less academic. In the past, just a lonely few, like NASA's James Hansen, were willing to go to jail, but in November, the premier scientific journal, Nature, published a commentary urging all climate scientists to "be arrested if necessary" because "this is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species' existence." In December, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union where most of the year's cutting-edge climate studies are released, one panel examined the question "Is Earth Fucked?" The scientist leading the session finished by saying probably – but "if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner." Make of it what you will: The American scientist who has spent the most time on the melting ice of Greenland, Ohio State's Jason Box, took to the stage at our Columbus tour stop to demand OSU and other colleges divest.

So when, for instance, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust says "our most effective impact on climate change" will come from "what we do with our teaching, our research. . . the students who may be the heads of the EPA or all kinds of organizations," it's partly true – that scholarship is important. But it's also clearly not doing the job alone, since the temperature keeps going up.

Universities have in fact already gone well beyond scholarship in the climate fight. As veteran student organizer Maura Cowley points out, 738 colleges from Adams State to Yeshiva University have already signed the "President's Climate Commitment," pledging that their campuses will go carbon-neutral because they are "deeply concerned about the unprecedented scale and speed of global warming." The commitment is more than rhetorical – open up almost any college web page and you'll find a tab for "sustainability," with the PR office lauding the latest effort to install solar panels or convert to a pedestrian campus. "You can't walk 20 steps on the Stanford campus without seeing a recycling station," says Harrison. "I've been very impressed with all of that, which is why it seems so illogical they're invested in fossil fuel." Exactly – if you're committed to greening your campus, why wouldn't you be committed to greening your portfolio, too? Why is the heating system for the new arts center a proper target for environmental concern, but not the $50 million sitting in Peabody Coal, where it helps support climate-denying think tanks and reality-denying Congressmen?

Hence divestment. Sometimes, colleges can exert influence without selling stock – on many issues, like sweatshop labor, they may have been smarter to keep their stock, so they could use their position as shareholders to influence corporate decision-making. "But when we were talking about sweatshops, it wasn't because we were opposed to t-shirts. We just needed some changes in how companies operated," says Klein. Adds Dan Apfel, who as head of the Responsible Endowments Coalition has coordinated much of the emerging divestment furor, "If you're Apple, we want you to produce your computers in ways that are good. But we like computers. The fossil fuel industry, though – its existence is fundamentally against our existence. We can't change them by investing in them, because they're not going to write off reserves. There's no way they can be made sustainable, in the same way tobacco can't be made healthy."

2) Universities understand math, and in this case the math about who's to blame is Q.E.D. clear. It points straight at the fossil fuel companies.

By now, most activists know the three numbers I outlined in this magazine last summer, in a piece that immediately went viral: If we're to hold planetary warming to the two degrees that the world's governments have said is the absolute red line, we can only burn 565 more gigatons of carbon – but the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned, have 2795 gigatons of carbon in their reserves. That is, they have five times the coal and oil and gas needed to roast the earth, and they fully intend to burn it – in fact, a company like Exxon boasts about spending a hundred million dollars a day looking for more hydrocarbons, all the fracking gas and Arctic oil and tar sands crude they can find. "The math is so irrefutable," says Klein, the veteran anti-corporate activist who's been helping lead the fight. "The fossil fuel companies haven't even bothered to dispute it. And coming to the issue with numbers like that, putting them in an academic context, that's radical. It makes it hard for the boards of trustees – who after all are supposed to be numbers people – to deal with. Suddenly it's the students who are the number crunchers, and the idealistic fantasists are the bank presidents on the board who don't want to deal with the reality staring them in the face."

It's not as if all of us who use fossil fuel aren't implicated – flying to Florida for spring break fills the sky with carbon. But it's only the fossil fuel industry that lobbies round the clock to make sure nothing ever changes. "We've figured out the root of the problem by this point," says Maura Cowley, who as head of the Energy Action Coalition has been coordinating student environmental efforts for years. Individual action matters, but systemic change – things like a serious price on carbon that the industry has blocked for years – is all that can really turn the tide in the short window the science of climate still leaves open. "Going after them directly feels seriously good," says Cowley.

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