By Gregory B. Hladky
11:40 AM EST, December 11, 2012
Back in the 1980s, “divestment” was a term for a student-driven campaign to force colleges and universities to end their financial connections to companies doing business with South Africa’s brutal white apartheid regime.
Today, the same word is being used as a battle cry on the issue of global warming, but this time concerned college activists are calling for schools to sell off their endowment investments in major fossil fuel companies.
The argument is that corporate giants like Halliburton and BP are contributing to global pollution and increasing the dangerous pace of climate change, and that colleges and universities shouldn’t be financially linked to such companies.
“If this educational institution is trying to prepare its students for the future,” says Patrick Reed, president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, “it does not make sense to be investing in an industry that makes that future less tenable.”
Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College in Maine are already moving to end their investments in the fossil fuel industry.
The Yale Political Union heard environmental activist Bill McKibben speak on the divestment issue and, by a 2-1 margin, voted in September to urge Yale University to end its fossil fuel investments. (Yale is one of the wealthiest higher educational institutions in the world, with an endowment estimated at more than $20 billion.)
Last month, an official resolution asking Harvard University to divest itself of all its fossil fuel stocks won student approval with 72 percent of those voting.
According to 350.org, the climate change activist organization created by McKibben and others, students on more than 100 schools across the U.S. are now actively pushing the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
“We are very surprised at how incredibly fast this has spread across the country,” says McKibben. The divestment effort really only got started in August and September, he explains, and has “blown up into the biggest student movement in many years.”
McKibben, a writer and climate change activist, helped spark the movement with a 21-city tour this fall designed to emphasize the connections between global warming, extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and the melting of the Arctic ice pack, and the fossil fuel industry.
Yale students now working to convince the administration to change its investment policies say they want the university to immediately freeze all holdings in fossil fuel stocks and to phase them out over five years.
And they’re using as leverage investment guidelines that Yale created decades ago. Those guidelines, Reed says, specify that the university shouldn’t be investing in anything that causes “grave social injury.” The student group now working on this issue figure they can make a hell of a case that fossil fuels are heavily contributing to the global warming that’s responsible for major troubles across the globe.
Reed says, “We’re interested in showing that investment in the fossil fuel industry does not meet our… moral minimum.” That’s the key terminology in the Yale guidelines for deciding whether or not to invest in something.
The goal, Reed says, is “showing that divestment is the only sensible recourse to take” for the university.
Petroleum industry spokesmen insist that college and university divestment won’t really make any real difference in a U.S. energy industry worth more than $1 trillion. If they sell off their oil stocks, somebody else will be buying them.
If you combined all the endowments of all American institutions of higher learning, they might add up to about $400 billion. No one can be sure how much of that money is invested in fossil fuel company stocks, but the total probably wouldn’t cause any trembling in Big Energy’s board rooms.
Reed and activists like McKibben argue that divestment can have a far broader impact than simply trying to hurt energy companies in their pocketbook. Reed says this kind of campaign is a great way to bring the issue of global warming and the role of fossil fuels home to the general public.
“It’s also sending a message to our national policy makers,” Reed adds.
McKibben has no illusions that university and college endowment divestments will have a major financial impact on the energy industry. “I don’t think in the short run we’re likely to bankrupt Exxon,” he quips.
The immediate goal is more to focus public attention on the relationship between fossil fuel and global warming, according to McKibben, and to make clear what role the huge energy industry is playing.
“Universities are a good place to fight this fight,” McKibben argues, noting that it was research by academic experts that exposed the dangers of global warming and the role of the use of fossil fuel pollution in speeding it up. He also believes more and more students are realizing that their futures could be radically damaged by climate change unless something is done now.
“The administrators of most universities have also taken strong stands for sustainability in recent years,” says McKibben.
And if a college president is willing to “green” up his or her campus, he adds, “Why wouldn’t you green your portfolio as well?”
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