Climate activists need to take their victories where they can. There was little success to celebrate at the U.N. climate summit in Doha, Qatar, which concluded over the weekend. Delegates agreed to extend the expiring Kyoto Protocol by a few years — albeit without the participation of previous signatories like Japan and Russia, which really left only Australia and most of the developed economies of Europe. The U.S. — which never ratified Kyoto to begin with — offered little on its own, and developed nations put off resolving a debate over the promise of providing tens of billions in climate aid to poor nations. Delegates agreed to finalize a new, wider global pact on climate change by 2015 that would take effect by 2020 — but furnished no real details on what that agreement would actually do. Even by the low standards of the U.N. climate process, Doha was a disappointment.
That’s one reason climate activists are focusing their efforts closer to home — particularly on America’s colleges and universities. Thanks to the efforts of the writer turned activist Bill McKibben‘s 350.org, students at schools around the country are pushing university administrators to sell off any investments in fossil fuel companies from collegiate endowment funds. The strategy is called divestment, and if it sounds familiar, it’s because student activists used the same method — mostly successfully — to push universities to stop investing in apartheid-era South Africa during the 1980s. One school, Unity College in Maine, has already taken action to dump its fossil fuel investments, and the campaign is active in more than 150 other U.S. colleges and universities. “In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change,” wrote Stephen Mulkey, the Unity College president, in a letter to other college administrators. “Our students are already demanding action, and we must not ignore them.”
The money at stake in the divestment fight could be significant: colleges and universities have endowments worth more than $400 billion, depending on fluctuations in the market. While there’s no way of knowing how much of that goes to fossil fuel companies like Exxon or Shell, those firms do represent a large portion of the stock market, representing nearly 10% of the value of the Russell 3000, a broad index of 3,000 American companies.
But the divestment fight is less about money than it is about the moral status of the fossil fuel industry. By calling on universities to divest themselves of oil, gas and coal companies, student activists are trying to draw an equivalency between a what is now a widely-acknowledged social evil — an apartheid regime — and a fossil fuel industry that sells the products that are chiefly responsible for manmade global warming. To McKibben and his allies, the fossil fuel industry is the new tobacco — and should be treated as such, as he told the Huffington Post in a recent interview:
Our criteria is that it’s okay to invest in companies so long as they stop lobbying in Washington, stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, and sit down with every one else to plan to keep 80 percent of the reserves in the ground. We just need to change the power balance. They’re making so much money. The popular notion is that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels but I find that’s not true; most people would be happy to power their lives with anything else. The addicts are the big fossil fuel companies that are just fatally addicted to the level of profit they are able to deduce. They can’t help themselves you know — so we’re going to have help them.
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While Unity College has led the way on divestment, so far there’s little evidence that other colleges and universities are eager to follow suit, though some institutions like Tufts University in Massachusetts are at least considering calls for divestment. No school with an endowment greater than $1 billion has agreed to divest so far, and Harvard University — which has the nation’s largest endowment at $31 billion and happens to be McKibben’s alma mater — has said that it won’t divest, even though 72% of Harvard undergraduates voting in recent campus elections supported a call to ask the school to do so.
In some ways it’s not completely fair for student activists to focus on the fossil-fuel investments of their schools, given that colleges and universities are doing more to combat climate change and go green than just about any other institution in the country. More than 600 U.S. schools are part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, under which signatories agree to complete a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and take immediate steps to reduce carbon output. But at the same time, American universities aren’t shy about holding themselves to a still-higher standard when it comes to progressive causes — and for many college students today, there’s no cause greater than fighting climate change. 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.