Friday, October 19, 2012

Students Advocating Divestment from Fossil Fuels

American higher education endowments represent $400 billion worth of investments and there is a movement afoot to divest these funds from fossil fuels. The EPA, the IPCC, and many others have stated that fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change. However, rather than moving away from fossil fuels, the US is intensifying its exploration efforts. Right now ExxonMobil spends $100 million a day trying to find more hydrocarbons. For companies like ExxonMobile who are stalwart supporters of dirty energy, divestment is a powerful instrument to induce change.

In finance and economics, a divestment is the reduction of an asset (the opposite of an investment). Historically, a good example of ethical divestment was the withdrawal of support from companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Throughout the 1980s, 155 colleges and universities divested themselves of the portions of their endowments that did business with the apartheid regime. This movement gained national attention and inspired others to do the same. Divestment helped to bring an end to apartheid, now students are advocating divestment from fossil fuels to combat climate change.

One of the schools the took the lead in divestment from the South Africa in the 80s was Hampshire College. Hampshire and other colleges are now leading the charge to divest from fossil fuels. Amhurst College, Lewis & Clark, Cornell, Tufts, Harvard, Boston University and Mt. Holyoke, are amongst the schools that are seeking to push administrators to divest from hydrocarbon investments.

These student campaigns have already proven successful. On October 15, 2012, Hampshire College made history by announcing that its endowment is now free of investments in fossil fuels.

Alli Welton, an undergraduate student at Harvard College and Ben Thompson, a graduate student at Boston University are amongst the students working to push their schools to divest from fossil fuels. They are members of Students for a Just and Stable Future, a student-led organization partnering with Better Future Project and on university divestment campaigns. They have written an article entitled "Its Getting Hot in Here."

Another similar article by Tufts students Nick Ryder, Jeremy Goldman and Dan Jubelirer is titled "The Case for Divestment." Bill Mckibben, the leader of works closely with students, he offered his take in an article titled "Divest from Fossil Fuels. Now." In this article he states "you can have a healthy fossil-fuel industry or a healthy planet, but you can't have both."

Campuses across the country are joining a national student divestment movement that is fighting against the environmental catastrophe being perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. A national day of action for fossil fuel divestment is planned for October 24, 2012. To learn more about starting a divestment campaign at your school go to or contact

American students who are advocating divestment are at the forefront of a movement that may snowball into an international initiative. Divestment sends a powerful message to the financial community, perhaps most importantly it impacts amoral investors who in turn may withdraw their own investments due to concerns about stock devaluation.

Divestment is a powerful reminder that irresponsible industries face serious risks that they cannot control. Divestment is an effective way to use financial instruments to put pressure on the fossil fuel industry.

Just as students led a divestment movement that helped to topple Apartheid, a similar movement can combat the climate crisis by diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels.

© 2012, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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