Student fossil fuel divestment movement pushes national climate debate

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Twelve of the warmest years on record have come in the last 15 years, and while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that this trend is a direct result of human activities, progress on comprehensive national climate legislation has long been stalled. In a speech at Georgetown University in June, Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s long-awaited climate plan, which has been lauded as a step in the right direction, and criticized for its support of nuclear and natural gas, among other shortcomings. One sentence toward the end of the president’s speech, however, stood out to thousands of student activists across the nation: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.” While many Americans did not recognize the sentence as a reference to an expansive climate justice movement growing in the United States and abroad, students at more than 300 campuses took Obama’s words as an acknowledgment of the now two-year-old campaign to pressure their institutions to drop stocks from the fossil fuel industry.

The campaign originated at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2010 when students visited communities in Appalachia decimated by mountaintop removal coal mining. Infuriated by systemic inaction at the federal and state level, students decided to target their board of trustees, arguing that it is morally wrong to invest money in companies that destroy mountains and pollute the air, water and land. Since 2011, thousands of students, religious leaders and elected city officials across the country have taken up the same logic, leveraging divestiture as a tactic to target the reputation of the fossil fuel industry, whose business model relies on mining and burning five times more carbon than scientists agree is safe to burn to avert runaway climate change.

In ridding a portfolio of fossil fuel stocks, institutional investors have an opportunity to make a moral statement as well as an economically wise decision that is in line with their fiduciary responsibilities. Many institutions and municipalities that have already voted to divest have done so because it is also prudent to avoid unnecessary risks associated with the existing international market for carbon. According to recent UC Berkeley graduate Katie Hoffman, “The economic research coming out of this movement makes it clear that there exists a carbon bubble, and if governments take any steps to regulate carbon in the ways necessary to avert certain climate catastrophe, more than half of the industry’s assets are at risk of becoming stranded.” Beyond focus on divestment, some students are also proposing that institutions reallocate divested funds into areas of the economy that are productive in climate-change adaptation and mitigation, thereby contributing to tangible climate and energy solutions.

Perhaps this logic spurred the recent commitment from the city of Berkeley to divest its asset holdings from the fossil fuel industry. Inspired by the work of UC students across the state, particularly the Fossil Free Cal campaign at UC Berkeley, the city became one of the first to move forward on climate by making fossil fuel divestment official city policy. It is likely that the Fossil Free UC campaign will have to remain vigilant to sway the regents toward full divestment, given the complicated nature of the UC investment portfolio structure, but students leading the effort are prepared to do just that. This Wednesday, student leaders from across the UC system will address the Regents for the third time to propose a five-year plan to put the University of California system on a similar path to the city of Berkeley.

College campuses have long served as wellsprings for widespread social and political change, and the city of Berkeley’s decision to divest alongside other municipalities like Seattle and Cambridge, Mass., illustrates that the movement is transcending its collegiate origins. More importantly, it is sparking the kind of national conversation needed to force climate change and the future of energy onto the U.S. political agenda. While Obama’s speech and climate action plan may have little bearing on the trajectory of federal climate policy during his term, the movement to address the climate crisis will continue to play out on and off campuses at the state and local level as the case for fossil fuel divestment continues to gain political and economic legitimacy.

Ophir Bruck is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley and a fossil free summer fellow with the opinion desk at [email protected]