Brown University students at a November 2012 rally for the school’s administration to divest in coal.
President Barack Obama’s surprising new focus on climate change is galvanizing a nascent student movement that is trying to turn a university-based assault on oil companies into this generation’s version of the 1980s campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
“I did not expect him to say anything about climate change,” said Brown University senior Emily Kirkland of Obama’s inaugural address. “I started jumping up and down and screaming. He spoke very boldly. He made it clear that it was going to be one of his priorities.”
Kirkland is an activist with Brown University’s Divest Coal Campaign, one of the more than 200 organizations at colleges and universities whose students are asking school administrations to stop funding fossil fuel companies.
“His words were ringing,” environmental writer Bill McKibben, whose 2012 Rolling Stone article on climate change galvanized the divestment movement, told BuzzFeed. “We’ll find out what they mean when he decides whether to approve or reject the Keystone pipeline, which is his first and purest test. And I hope they echo in the ears of college trustees across the nation, who need to understand that this is the most urgent problem we’ve ever faced.”
Obama, who was quiet on the subject of climate change during his re-election campaign after losing a difficult battle over “cap-and-trade” carbon regulations during his first term, made it a central part of his second inaugural address Monday.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” Obama said. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”
The president spoke about the importance of job creation and new industries in green technology, but did not lay out a plan for his approach. Those details may come out in his State of the Union address Feb. 12. Whether or not his agenda will align with the students’ focus of divestment is also uncertain.
It’s a tactic that has worked in the past, however. In the 1980s, 155 campuses and 26 state governments divested from companies doing business in South Africa. Nelson Mandela later visited the University of California Berkeley to thank the college and other campuses for their involvement in the liberation struggle.
Universities are a natural setting for action— they manage big portfolios, are often publicly funded, and are home to thousands of young activists with the time and energy to organize.
“Being young, we’re brasher and willing to create change,” said Eric Recchia, a senior at Humboldt State University who serves on the California Student Sustainability Coalition board of directors. “There is a lot of inspiration that can be given to us from organizers who came before us, but if the students aren’t pushing it, I don’t feel anyone else is going to create that groundswell.”
A Brown University student wearing a face mask holds up a sign supporting the student-led divestment campaign.
And campuses appear to be the new hub of a climate change movement that has appeared at times adrift amid a rise in popular skepticism of global warming, an increasingly partisan political debate, and congressional gridlock.
After reading McKibben’s article, Kirkland said she and about a dozen other Brown students joined to create her school’s campaign, which now has more than 100 volunteers on a campus of about 6,000 undergraduates. Kirkland said the administration is starting to listen.
In October, the group presented to the school’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices, which is made up of faculty, staff and alumni. The committee makes investment recommendations to “The Corporation,” or Brown’s Board of Trustees.
“ACCRIP has recommended divestment on three previous occasions: tobacco, Sudan/Darfur, and HEI Hotels,” Kirkland said, “and the Corporation has always followed their recommendations in the past.”
Kirkland said she hopes the committee will release a recommendation this week urging the Corporation to divest.
This map on shows the locations of university divestment campaigns across the country.
Among the more than 200 schools mobilizing campaigns, Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have already divested their endowments from fossil fuels. At least ten school administrations have said they are looking into fossil fuel finance in their endowments.
At University of California, Berkeley, students organized last year at Free Speech Movement Cafe, an on-campus coffee shop that honors the 1960s student leader Mario Savio. They hold potlucks to drum up membership and are rebranding their movement away from coal-specific protests to addressing fuel funding in general. Kathryn Hoffman, a Berkeley senior and campaign leader, said the group is garnering student support before addressing the school’s chancellor about divesting.
“Connecting with 350.org gave our movement a name and resources,” Hoffman said. “Students know that name is reputable. It’s something that people know and care about and bolsters what we’re doing. We’re not just the liberal Berkeley kids trying to have people divest.”
The campaign has yet to face much scrutiny from national parties who are on the receiving end of generous donations from the oil industry, but some political figures appear open to it. Jon Huntsman,the former Utah governor with a fleeting bid for the presidency, told BuzzFeed recently that the student-led movement is “a good thing.”
“I can tell you, as serving on some big corporate boards, that when things like that happen, it’s taken seriously,” he said. “Leave it up to kids on the campuses to do what they think is right, and in many cases, you’ll find that they’re ahead of the curve in terms of policy.”
And these student movements represent a shift away from the small changes — bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, change out your light bulbs, always recycle — and onto offense against specific companies like Chevron, BP, and Exxon Mobil.
“Politics tends to follow the social climate. But you have to create the social climate that inspires the political changes. Divestment can work,” Humboldt’s Recchia said. “These companies are in the business because of their bottom line. That’s where you get a response.”
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