It's obvious how this should end. You've got the richest industry on earth, fossil fuel, up against some college kids, some professors, a few environmentalists, a few brave scientists.
And it's worse than that. The college students want their universities to divest from fossil fuel – to sell off their stock in Exxon and Shell and the rest in an effort to combat global warming. But those universities, and their boards, have deep ties to the one percent: combined, their endowments are worth $400 billion, and at Harvard, say, the five folks who run the portfolio make as much money as the entire faculty combined.
Oh, and remember – this is supposed to be an apathetic college generation. The veteran leader Ralph Nader, in a speech in Boston last year, said kids today were more passive than any he'd seen in 45 years. "Nothing changes if you don't have fire in your belly," he said. "You are a generation without even embers in your belly."
But here's my bet: the kids are going to win, and when they do, it's going to matter. In fact, with Washington blocked, campuses are suddenly a front line in the climate fight – a place to stand up to a status quo that is wrecking the planet. The campaign to demand divestment from fossil fuel stock emerged from nowhere in late fall to suddenly become the largest student movement in decades. Already it's drawing widespread media attention; already churches and city governments are joining students in the fight. It's where the action all of a sudden is.
I had a front row seat to watch this explosion – actually, I was up on stage, on a nationwide tour that sold out concert halls across the country early this winter. With a bevy of progressive heroes (author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, filmmaker Josh Fox, Hip Hop Caucus founder Lennox Yearwood) and with Rolling Stone as a media sponsor, we took our biodiesel tour bus from Seattle to Atlanta, Maine to Utah, trying to spark a new front in the climate fight. Unknowingly, we'd timed this DoTheMath tour pretty well: Post-Sandy, as the hottest year in American history was drawing to a close, we had no trouble finding allies. In fact, we were serving less as a virus then as a vector, letting activists glimpse their emerging strength. Every night, kids from a dozen local colleges would shout out their resolve, and then gather in "Aftermath" parties to get down to organizing.
By the time we finally finished, in December in Salt Lake City, 192 college campuses had active divestment fights underway, a number that's since grown to 256. And people were noticing. On the Senate floor, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse told his colleagues that "as Congress sleepwalks, Americans actually are taking action on their own. These students are imploring their schools to weigh the real cost of climate change against the drive for more financial returns, and divest from the polluters." The New York Times, in what became the week's most e-mailed story in the paper of record, said the campaign could "force climate change back on to the nation's political agenda." A few days later, Time magazine ended its account of the mushrooming movement like this: "University presidents who don't fall in line should get used to hearing protests outside their offices. Just like their forerunners in the apartheid battles of the 1980s, these climate activists won't stop until they win."
We even had some early victories. Three colleges – Unity in Maine, Hampshire in Massachusetts and Sterling College in Vermont – purged their portfolios of fossil fuel stocks. Three days before Christmas, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn announced city funds would no longer be invested in fossil fuel companies, and asked the heads of the city's pension fund to follow his lead. Citing the rising sea levels that threatened city's neighborhoods, he said, "I believe that Seattle ought to discourage these companies from extracting that fossil fuel, and divesting the pension fund from these companies is one way we can do that."
The logic of divestment couldn't be simpler: if it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from that wreckage. The fossil fuel industry, as I showed in Rolling Stone last summer, has five times as much carbon in its reserves as even the most conservative governments on earth say is safe to burn – but on the current course, it will be burned, tanking the planet. The hope is that divestment is one way to weaken those companies – financially, but even more politically. If institutions like colleges and churches turn them into pariahs, their two-decade old chokehold on politics in DC and other capitals will start to slip. Think about, for instance, the waning influence of the tobacco lobby – or the fact that the firm making Bushmaster rifles shut down within days of the Newtown massacre, after the California Teachers Pension Fund demanded the change. "Many of America's leading institutions are dozing on the issue of climate," says Robert Massie, head of the New Economics Institute. "The fossil fuel divestment campaign must become the early morning trumpet call that summons us all to our feet."
It won't be an easy fight in most places, of course. At Harvard, say, 72 percent of the student body voted to demand divestment, only to have the university respond in the most patronizing possible fashion two days later: "We always appreciate hearing from students about their viewpoints, but Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels." But one of the Harvard student organizers responded with just the right mix of pepper and politeness: "The president is going to have to change her mind, because we're not changing ours," sophomore Alli Welton said. "Climate change is a matter of life or death for millions and millions of people."
And it's that simple truth that, over the next few semesters, will help students overwhelm boards of trustees and reluctant presidents. This movement didn't come out of nowhere, after all – despite Nader's pessimism, if you knew where to look, you could see the pot boiling for several years. On hundreds of campuses, students had persuaded their administrations to build green buildings and bike paths; tens of thousands of students had traveled to Washington for giant Powershift conventions to learn how to lobby on global warming. And since there's no longer anything theoretical about climate change, this movement's not going to dissipate – with each new storm and drought, it will gain tragic power.
In fact, if you sit down and game out the future, you start to realize that students, faculty, and engaged alumni have a surprisingly good hand. Trustees and presidents may resist at first – they are, almost by definition, pillars of the status quo. But universities, in the end, are one of the few places in our civilization where reason still stands a good chance of prevailing over power (especially since students are establishing some power of their own as they organize). And here's where reason inevitably leads:
1) Universities need to lead because they are where we first found out about climate change. It was in physics labs and on university supercomputers that the realization we were in trouble first dawned a generation ago. By this point the proverbial man in the street can see their predictions coming sadly true: It wasn't just Sandy, though there's no doubt that the image of the cold Atlantic pouring into the New York subways had imprinted the new fragility of western civilization on many minds. (If that radical rag Business Week used the headline "It's Global Warming, Stupid," then you knew the message was getting through.) But everywhere we went across the nation on our tour, people had their own stories. In the Pacific Northwest, where we began, ocean acidification is so advanced that oyster farmers are in despair; in Nebraska, the week we arrived, scientists determined that exactly 100 percent of the state was now in "severe drought." Hell, we got to Colorado in early December, and the night we arrived a raging wildfire high in the Rockies forced the evacuation of 500 homes. In December. In the Rockies.
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