Science, Tech & Environment

University students rally to get endowments out of fossil fuels

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Student activists rally on Brown’s campus, demanding the school divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. (Photo courtesy of Brown Divest Coal Campaign.)

Bill McKibben may be the closest thing the environmental movement has to a rock star.

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In November he took to the road, urging colleges to pull their endowments out of fossil fuel stocks, to pressure the industry to address climate change.

Analysts at the Carbon Tracker Initiative in London calculate that the fossil fuel industry has about 2800 gigatons of oil and gas in the ground. That’s five times the amount that humanity can burn if we want to keep the global temperature rise below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the target set in the voluntary 2009 Copenhagen accord.

McKibben made that argument in a recent Rolling Stone story, and he's now taking that argument to college campuses, where a movement has emerged to try and convince university leaders to divest their endowment holdings in fossil fuel companies.

At Brown University, he was greeted by a sold-out crowd. He wore old tennis shoes and a plain blue buttoned down shirt, the kind of clothes you might expect on a writer from Vermont.

He's still shocked at how much attention his article generated.

"It was in the issue with Justin Bieber on the cover, but two days later the editor called up and said ‘this is odd, your piece has ten times as many likes on Facebook as Justin Bieber’s,’" he recalled.

Brown University liked him too. This was no ordinary lecture, environmentalists from Van Jones to Naomi Klein to the head of Greenpeace all made video appearances. A group of students piled cases of beer onstage do McKibben could compare the ill-effects of fossil fuels with binge drinking.

A hangover lasts a few hours, carbon emissions, he said, last for geologic time. And he wasn’t only pushing the problem, he offered a way forward.

"It makes no difference if you talk about this stuff, it makes enormous difference if you do something about this stuff," he told a crowd giving him a standing ovation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, spoke about how divestment campaigns run by U.S. college students helped to free his country from apartheid.

"The divestment movement played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. Climate change is a deeply moral issue too, of course," Tutu said. "Once again, we can join together with the world and put pressure where it counts."

For McKibben, the only way to stop global warming is to attack the coal industry where it hurts, in the wallet. He says universities, with huge endowments invested in the stock market, have a key role to play.

"Colleges and churches and other places are where we think about moral issues. Colleges are where we learned about global warming, where the work was done, and if you go to any webpage of any university in America, there’s a long section outlining their commitment to sustainability," McKibben said. "Well that’s good. We should be greening campuses, and if we are, then there’s no logical reason we’re not greening our portfolios at the same time."

In the months since McKibben's Do the Math tour hit the road, students at over 100 colleges have launched divestment campaigns. Tiny Unity College in Maine joined Hampshire College as the only schools to commit to divest entirely from the fossil fuel industry so far.

The Brown Divest Coal Campaign was established this fall and is pressuring the administration to divest from what it calls the "filthy 15." They are coal mining companies or electric utilities that depend heavily on coal. Environmentalists say they have a brazen disregard for the environment.

Emily Kirkland, a leader in the Brown Divest Coal Campaign, calls those 15 companies the "worst of the worst."

"Divesting from coal is something that Brown can do now. Coal is the largest global source of carbon dioxide emissions, and by divesting from coal, Brown can be a climate leader, starting right now," she said.

More than 2,000 students signed a petition backing the divestment movement — in less than a month.

"We’ve met twice with President Paxon. We’ve presented to a University committee dedicated to overseeing the social responsibility of the endowment," Kirkland said. "W’re very optimistic that Brown’s administration will move quickly."

As for McKibben, he says while the tour has been exciting, the road life of a rock star is wearing. 

"Traveling around in the tour bus is somewhat more romantic in theory than in practice, and I’m a little worn out. The main problem is I’m 6-foot-3, and the bunks that we’re living in are 6 feet," he said.