Students at Seattle University rally before delivering 600 petition signatures calling for divestment to the school's administration. | Photo courtesy of Seattle University's Sustainable Student Action Club
Anurag Angara's first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is nearing its end, and he's waxing reminiscent in the spring sunshine outside the student center. "I'm just a freshman, so a lot of my classes are intro level," he says--business and economics, a lot of theory 101. But there's one subject in which he has had a far more grounded education: UNC Chapel Hill's $2 billion-plus endowment. "That has been the really deep topic that I've learned about," he says.
"It's like a whole other academic experience," agrees his friend Jack Largess, a freshman studying environmental science and another endowment expert. "But with no tests."
"Only really big presentations," Angara adds, laughing.
Angara, Largess, and other members of UNC's Sierra Student Coalition are slated to address the university's board of trustees this fall. Their goal: to convince the body that UNC should drop its multimillion-dollar investments in a group of coal companies that the students call the "Filthy 15." That elite group includes Duke Energy, a Charlotte-based utility that provides most of North Carolina's electricity and donates millions to the university.
So, it's no small ask. But the students, who have been preparing for months, plan to argue that divesting the university's endowment from coal is a matter of moral and economic responsibility. They cite the Carbon Tracker Initiative's estimate that if we are to stop catastrophic climate change, 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, unburned. By divesting, says Stewart Boss, a recent graduate who helped launch the school's campaign, universities can "do their part to strip the social license from these coal and fossil fuel companies." That means publicly dissociating themselves from companies whose business models depend on burning carbon.
When the Sierra Student Coalition kicked off its UNC campaign in 2011, it was one of just a handful of divestment drives in the nation. Now, more than 300 student-led campaigns are calling for divestment at colleges and universities across the country--and cities, churches, and other institutions will be targeted next. Some campaigns, like UNC's, focus on coal; others demand divestment from all fossil fuel companies.
The movement is beginning to get traction. At UNC, a campus referendum found that 77 percent of students want the university to divest from coal. Last spring, all five candidates for student body president endorsed divestment as well: "It was so popular that it was a PR thing for them," Angara says.
What eventual impact divestment may have on fossil fuel companies is open to debate. Climate activists like Bill McKibben say that the goal is largely political--stripping the companies of the clout that brings them economic and regulatory advantages. (See "Divestment: The Math.") But even in its early stages, the movement is having a major impact--on the lives of the students involved.
Rachel Goldstein, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, entered college with plans to become an ecologist. But as she learned about climate change, she felt a new urgency. "The science is there," she says. "The problem is that people aren't listening. I asked myself, 'Where can I have the biggest impact?'"
Divestment seemed a logical choice--using her status as a student to push the largest institution she belongs to. She wants to remind university administrators that current students are part of a generation that will be around to see some of the scariest climate-model forecasts come true.
"I don't want to live in the world where the graph goes like that," says Maddy Salzman, another leader of Washington University's divestment campaign, gesturing upward to show an anticipated spike in atmospheric CO2 levels. She hadn't thought of herself as an activist prior to getting involved with divestment, but a speech by McKibben both scared and inspired her. "The point of going to college is to have a better future, right? But if I'm going to pay all this money, and that money is being invested in ways that destroy the quality of my future, that doesn't make sense," she says.
Washington University students protest the Keystone XL pipeline.
That's a sentiment echoed by a lot of divestment campaigners--a very personal source of the passion that keeps students focused in the face of long odds and makes what could be a wonky topic deeply meaningful. When Jasmine Ruddy, of UNC's Sierra Student Coalition, says, "Duke Energy talks a lot about investing more in renewable energy, but they mean 3 percent in the next 25 years," Erin McAnulty, another coalition member, interjects: "It's just an insult to our generation, a straight-up insult."
Students have also been emphasizing the environmental justice argument for divestment, focusing on their responsibility to those who will feel the worst impacts of climate change, like the citizens of low-lying Bangladesh. That's a compelling message at Washington University, a private school where four years of education can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Riding out the storms on luck and privilege cannot be an excuse for doing nothing," Salzman says.
At Seattle University, a Jesuit school whose curriculum emphasizes social justice, equity is also sometimes an easier way to get students excited than an environmental appeal, says JJ Jahr, a recent graduate who helped start her school's campaign during her junior year. "To me, it feels like a capstone project: putting what I've learned here into action," she says.
UNC's campaign grew out of the 2010 student movement that convinced the school to stop burning coal at a university-run power plant near campus. Today's campaigners see that victory as a first step toward campus sustainability. "It's great that we're not polluting our own campus, but we're still investing in companies that pollute other communities," Largess says. He sees the disconnect as a form of greenwashing--more about appearance than impact.
Students at Seattle University march to the administration offices. For the divestment movement, Bill McKibben says, a fight is "as good as a win." | Photo courtesy of Seattle University's Sustainable Student Action Club
Asked why they got involved with divestment, many students answer that too many on-campus environmental groups focus on goals that feel too small in the face of global climate change: recycling, say, or incremental improvements in campus energy efficiency. "Divestment acknowledges the scope of the problem," Boss says. "It makes the university think about sustainability as more than PR. We have to take moral and ethical leadership on these issues."
Boss points to the story of Christopher C. Fordham III, who as UNC chancellor in the 1980s sided with students and supported the school's ultimately successful antiapartheid divestment movement. Fordham considered the decision to be a high point in his career. Current administrators have told UNC students that climate change is a different story--not a human rights issue like apartheid, and not enough of an "extraordinary circumstance" to warrant divestment.
"If climate change isn't an extraordinary circumstance, then what is?" Ruddy asks. "We came away from that just stunned," says McAnulty. "But I didn't think, 'This is impossible.' I just thought, 'We have to educate them.'"
The goal of student climate activists may be to change their universities' policies, but they recognize that the process is also changing them. "It's a huge part of what I'm getting out of college," Goldstein says. "I'm learning more doing this than I do in a lot of my classes."
Trying to get a major university to change how it invests is the most high-stakes, involved work many students have ever done. Students research the details of their schools' holdings, learn the complex ways in which endowments are managed, become conversant with climate science, and discuss the future economic impact of popping the carbon bubble. They meet and debate with leading administrators and make their case to students, faculty, and alumni. They write editorials, plan events, and compare strategies with students from other schools. The experience, they believe, is preparing them to keep having an impact after they graduate.
McAnulty remembers the first time a reporter from the Associated Press called to talk about the UNC divestment campaign. She panicked and tried to hand the phone off to Boss, who was older and had more experience dealing with the media. Boss wanted to make sure the younger students learned the skills they would need to take over. "You've got this," he told her, and she did the interview. Now she handles media outreach for the campaign. "Seeing her talk to very important reporters at the state's biggest newspaper like it ain't no thing is really rewarding," Boss says.
But Ruddy doesn't have any illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. "We meet with students, and they're all so idealistic--they care so much about climate change," she says. "It's when we work with the administrators that we realize not everyone is on our side. We realize how tough it is." Ruddy now feels prepared to influence important decisions. "A lot of what I've learned from this campaign is from closed meetings with administrators--learning how to be professional, how to speak the language."
Divestment is also changing how students experience college. Goldstein and Salzman met through their divestment work and have since become close friends. "It's a community at this point," says Goldstein. McAnulty, who transferred to UNC as a sophomore, says getting involved with divestment quickly plugged her into a group of new friends who share her fears and her dedication.
And because so many college campuses have divestment movements, students are able to network and share strategies with peers across the country--about what arguments work with administrators, for example, and how to convince alumni to respond to fundraising calls with demands for more responsible investing. Last spring, students from some 80 schools, including UNC, Washington University, and Seattle University, converged at Swarthmore College for a weekend of trainings and discussion. "We know that power is not in one or two schools," Jahr says. "The power comes when a lot of schools care enough to choose to divest."
What students are learning may be as important as their goals, Boss contends: "It's exciting if we can achieve some sort of victory on campus, but it's also a big deal to activate people in the climate movement, to get them to engage and think this is something they're going to do after college."
Seattle University states its mission as "empowering leaders for a just and humane world." Jahr credits her passion for divestment to internalizing that goal over her four years as a student. When people ask why it matters whether the school invests in fossil fuel companies, she says, "you can point back to that mission."
Student after student makes the same point: Pressuring their schools to divest isn't about fighting them, but about pushing them to be their best. "The people who are doing this are doing it because they love this university," Goldstein says. "They want it to do the right thing."
At UNC Chapel Hill, the transition from stopping a coal-fired power plant to trying to stop coal investments has got the students thinking about what the next stage will be. Largess imagines meeting a new group of freshmen in a few years, mentoring them as Boss and other students have mentored him, and handing off a campaign with a new and larger goal, one uniting campuses across the state: "You're going to change how Duke Energy does business in North Carolina," he says he'd tell them. "Dude, that gave me chills," Angara says.