Over the last nine months, more than 250 college campuses have committed to removing fossil fuel stocks from their university stock portfolio, a movement known as the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign. With a goal of separating university money from the fossil fuel industry, the student demand of replacing dirty energy stocks with sustainable alternatives has become a national discussion on climate change and reclaiming power from the fossil fuel industry.
Western is launching the strategy many universities are following: having students vote on fossil fuel divestment initiatives for a concise estimate of student support. Universities are also holding forums for students to become educated on the divestment campaign issues of climate change versus financial returns.
Taking guidance from the climate advocacy group 350.org’s series of rallies in 21 U.S. cities last fall, the message is the same for divestment campaigns run by students, faculty, communities and city governments. Fighting climate change means fossil fuel companies must leave a significant share of their reserves in the ground, and removing stock in fossil fuel could potentially convince them to put these actions in place. Universities, communities, churches and city governments are taking swift action to push university administrators to shift toward socially responsible business decisions, meaning fossil-fuel free.
Western Students for Renewable Energy is one of a handful of environmental organizations and clubs invested in promoting the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign. Along with 350.org and other Western environmental clubs, Western SRE has taken it upon itself to get support for the student divestment campaign to encourage approval by Western’s board of directors. Western Foundation’s board of directors, who handle university endowment assets, ultimately have the final say in deciding which companies to invest in. The board already has support from Western President Bruce Shephard.
Western invests 5.3 percent of its endowments in energy stock, totaling at $1.44 million, according to documents given to Western SRE by the endowment foundation. Oil companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP ELC are among the 38 energy companies Western endowments are invested in, according to the document. Exxon Mobil and BP PLC are listed on 350.org’s 200 dirtiest fossil fuel companies.
For a generation labeled as “apathetic” by Ralph Nader, a former Green Party candidate, the fight for combating climate change has unfolded otherwise, with university campuses standing up to the fossil fuel industry.
So far, four universities, including Hampshire College in Mass. and Sterling College in Vermont, have become fossil-fuel-free in their investment portfolios. Churches and city governments have joined the fight for public policy to correlate with fight climate change, too. With widespread media attention connecting drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and other practices with a human cost to the fossil fuel companies, students are rallying against this movement.
Students’ current divestment approach was taken from the divestment concept enacted on U.S. soil during the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s. Demanding total removal of stocks associated with the National Party, grassroots campaigning became a national epicenter of discussing political discourse and making changes through holding corporations socially accountable by moving money away from those companies.
Targeting companies to be held accountable within the public sphere is as much a goal as divesting in university portfolios, according to Go Fossil Free Organization.
“It’s a great model back in the apartheid because lots of universities divested from companies doing business with South Africa, including Western,” said Neil Baunsgard, a senior and Western SRE club member, “that’s kind of been our model because we already have a socially responsible investing clause that says that our number one goal is to generate revenue but not if the investment causes substantial social harms.”
Andrew Eckels, a sophomore and director of Transition Western Club and Western SRE club member, said he sees Western SRE’s leadership role to spread awareness about the divestment campaign, not just as socially ethical, but also as fulfilling a grassroots-led tactic of targeting the youth to build a movement.
“Our political climate is really not there,” Eckels said. “We really need a social movement and huge pressure to make these changes happen.”
In addition to having hosted an on-campus divestment campaign forum open to all community members on March 7, 2013, Western SRE is looking to student support to strengthen the movement’s presence at Western. Their current focus is on passing the divestment ballot initiative, presented for student vote April 29 to May 3, which gathered over 1,000 signatures. Besides having the power to sway university administrators and endowment board members, junior and Western SRE President Jenny Godwin sees the initiative as an opportunity to get everyone on board.
“The initiative is a way for students to support the ongoing discussions happening between students, faculty, administrators and people on the endowment board, and for them to all be engaged in a conversation about divestment,” Godwin said. “At this point, ballot initiatives are simply advisory statements, so they don’t set anything in stone, but they are a further push for our administration to continue this partnership within the divestment issue.”
Although seeing support in numbers could resonate with Western’s board of endowment, Western SRE realizes the long process toward achieving their goal of being fossil-fuel-free in five years. According to Baunsgard, transitioning stock portfolios can be a lengthy process.
“Divestment is the first step and reinvestment is the second step. For our portfolio, we don’t make any positive investments in sustainability, which kind of doesn’t seem like it goes along with Western’s mission,” said Baunsgard.
Western remains steadfast in their goal of becoming the first fossil fuel free public university within the next five years.
“Seth Vidana at the divestment panel was quoted saying that from the administration he’s not hearing ‘no,’ he’s hearing ‘how,’ which is really promising,” said Eckels.
Although the intention of the divestment campaign is to combat climate change, the financial logistics of divesting have created skepticism around the campaign from the fossil fuel industry and university administrators. The industry spearheaded a study arguing the faults of divestment, stating that universities would be abandoning high-performing investments by selling their stocks. University administrators’ concern are in losing investments that could impact the university’s ability to give financial aid and scholarships.
Gathering signatures and hosting weekly meetings open to all students are only a couple ways Western SRE is working towards divestment. As a campus of students who previously convinced university administrators for sustainable buildings and recycling programs, Western SRE believes all who join their efforts in the divestment movement will be a part of social change that so often is stimulated and strengthened on university campuses.
“Looking ahead, climate change is what I see to be the hugest issue of my generation,” Godwin said. “Through this movement, so many clubs and organizations are involved. It’s not just an energy issue, it’s something that’s really connecting a movement that’s become one that’s dealing with fighting against oppression, against racism, and against a classicism that’s part of climate change in that people who are the poorest are the most effected by issues of justice.”
Eckels said he believes that this movement is a multifaceted cause that should spur everyone to look at their individual impact.
“I want to see mass movement. I want to see people being engaged in making change all of these issues across the board, and I see this as an avenue towards getting there,” he said. “I’m excited to see people getting involved, being engaged and making change.”