After climate strike, students plan for the future

Senior members of Tufts Climate Action, Caro Fett, Erica Nork, Hanna Carr and Celia Bottger, pose for a portrait in front of Ballou Hall on Sept. 24. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Hundreds of Tufts students turned out last Friday for the Tufts Climate Strike, rallying at the Mayer Campus Center and venturing to City Hall to join the greater Boston movement of over 7,000 protesters. The strike was organized by Tufts Climate Action (TCA) and the Sunrise Movement with the support of a newly formed activism coalition made up of 17 student organizations including Immigrants United For Justice, the Petey Greene Program and Students for Environmental Awareness. The strike marked the largest climate action at Tufts to date, according to TCA.

As climate change reveals itself as a greater threat through extreme weather events, droughts and food scarcity, students have asked how else they can become part of this movement now that the strike is over. On-campus leaders in the movement believe that this is just the beginning, especially with the birth of the new activism coalition.

Hanna Carr is a member of Tufts Climate Action. According to Carr, a senior, the coalition is an exciting new way Tufts students can engage in climate activism.

“I think the best way we see Tufts students getting involved in environmental activism and general activism will be through the new activism coalition,” Carr said. “A lot of students want to do something about climate change and want to do something about the greater environmental issues on campus but don’t know the best way to do that. But I think by getting the word out and by sharing a lot of similar goals will be a great way for people to get involved.”

Ella McDonald, an operations lead for the Sunrise Movement at Tufts, expressed optimism for the future of climate activism within the Sunrise Movement and at Tufts.

“There’s more to be done. It’s not a one-and-done event,” McDonald, a junior, said. “This is part of a larger strategy that Sunrise is employing to build our mass movement … there are going to be more larger strikes up to 2020 and through 2020 to make sure the pressure remains on politicians, and politicians see that youth care about this issue, and youth are going to vote according to how candidates are aligned behind these issues.”

The Sunrise Movement is one of the new ways Tufts students can join the environmental movement. According to McDonald, the Sunrise Movement is a national movement founded upon the principles of combining people power with political power. Ultimately, they aim to ensure that politicians fight for climate-conscious policies, like pushing current presidential candidates to debate climate policy and sign a Green New Deal pledge.

The Sunrise Movement first appeared at Tufts last February. Now, McDonald and sophomore Spencer Gallant have formed a team, with the Tufts chapter focused primarily on advocating for greater voter transparency in the Massachusetts State House. They said that they are working alongside the organization Act on Mass to canvas for local politicians.

McDonald emphasized that students do not need to have any knowledge of organizing or history of participation in activist issues to become part of the movement.

“All you need is to care about the issue and it touches literally every other issue,” McDonald said. “It is the intersection of all issues. Many of us, myself included, are new to this work, and we’re figuring it out because if we don’t stand up for our futures, who will?”

While the Sunrise Movement is working to impact political change, TCA is working to hold the Tufts administration accountable. TCA’s main goal since its inception in 2012 has been getting Tufts to divest from the fossil fuel industry; as of 2014, the university had 2% of its assets invested in fossil fuels.

Though their efforts have been met by opposition from the administration, TCA is confident that change is ahead. And there is precedent for universities divesting from fossil fuels. The University of California system announced this month that it is cutting fossil fuels from its approximately $83.4 billion portfolio due to the financial risk the assets pose, adding a potential financial incentive to a movement driven by environmental concerns.

Tufts statistics have yielded encouraging results. Evaluations of Tufts endowment performance in fiscal year 2017 show that the funds invested through the Tufts University Sustainability Fund outperformed the total return pool of the rest of the endowment, indicating what many TCA members believe is reason for divestment to increase the university’s annual returns. 

“These stats help debunk the common argument that divesting from fossil fuel companies may reduce Tufts’ annual returns and therefore would be a breach of fiduciary responsibility,” said Carr.

Caro Fett, a senior involved in TCA, believes that the energy of the youth climate movement will lead Tufts to divest soon.

“I think what this weekend showed me is that there is a lot of power,” Fett said. “Tufts students are the energy behind the youth climate movement and are gaining energy from it. I think all of the students out there this weekend got to see how many students are standing with them.”

Fett believes that joining the divestment movement is the single most effective way for college students to make an impact, and that college students are among the best equipped to impact change on such a large scale, given historical precedent. There are specific parallels, she believes, between the fossil fuel divestment movement and the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, in which traditional forms of protest called on universities to divest from businesses supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“The one problem with a strike is that sometimes a person shows up one time and that meant something but we also know that in our country, especially in the Trump administration, that on a larger federal level stuff isn’t happening,” said Fett.

According to Fett, limited immediate action on the federal level makes local activism even more important.

“Action has to be directed action and very specific undertakings that can be achieved on a local level. Tufts can divest. That has nothing to do with the federal government. I think that bringing the energy from the strike which is worldwide to our campus can push the administration,” Fett said.

In their pursuit to put pressure on the administration, which has yet to respond to the most recent resolution from TCA calling for a transition to a carbon-neutral endowment, TCA has partnered with faculty members and alumni to achieve their goal. Carr believes that the growing population of climate-conscious graduates could have a consequential impact on the school’s endowment.

“We’re going to be the ones to donate after we graduate,” Carr said. “Tufts is constantly asking us for donations even while we’re here. What if we said to the university, ‘we don’t feel comfortable putting our own money into an endowment that is investing in fossil fuels,’ because if we wouldn’t invest our own money in fossil fuels, we won’t want to allow Tufts to do it.”

Both organizations have emphasized that the student body has a responsibility to act beyond the climate strike.

McDonald said that upcoming initiatives for the Sunrise Movement include a second climate strike planned for Nov. 28, Black Friday, and endorsing politicians in this year’s municipal elections that stand for climate justice. Carr also mentioned TCA will be attending Extinction Rebellion’s Flood The Seaport this Friday.

“I think the fact that we’ve had so many people express interest in Sunrise Tufts and attend our meetings goes to show that college campuses are really conducive to organizing efforts and mass mobilization,” McDonald said. “I’m excited to see more and more Sunrise hubs popping up at colleges across the country. As college students, we have an enormous amount of political power that we often don’t realize.”