A new approach to combating the issue of climate change is springing up on campuses all over the country. Campaigning to divest university endowments of their investments in the fossil fuel industry, Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) teamed up with a new student group, The Responsible Endowment Collective (REC) to spearhead the initiative on campus.
The ideology behind the nation?wide divestment campaign stems from Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” published in the July 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, according to SJSF co?president Anna Lello?Smith. Sophomore Dan Jubelirer cited the article as a primary influence on his decision to start the Responsible Endowment Collective at Tufts this semester.
The article lays out statistics that paint a stark picture of the realities of climate change, including one that fossil fuel companies currently burn nearly 2,800 gigatons of carbon, about five times the amount of the global “carbon budget,” the limit on how much oil, coal and gas that can be allowed into the atmosphere.
McKibben rejects current strategies, calling individual efforts to combat climate change too insignificant, and says that change through political channels are as unlikely to happen. Instead, he suggests students have a unique opportunity to get involved with climate change by focusing on divestment at their universities, Lello?Smith, a junior, said.
State and nation?wide organizations with a mission to end the consumption of fossil fuels have embraced and begun to support university divestment campaigns, including 350.org – founded by McKibben – and Better Future Project in Massachusetts.
“The divestment campaign is a broad coalition. We’re bringing these organizations together to support students,” Shea Riester, who is the Massachusetts fossil fuel divestment organizer for 350.org and Better Future Project, said. “It’s about the students and empowering them to take on this issue and supporting them in whatever way we can, but they’re leading the charge.”
University divestment is not a novel idea, but rather a strategy with an established precedent. A 1980s campaign that demanded divestment from companies doing business in South Africa serves as a model for new fossil fuel divestment campaigns currently emerging, according to Riester.
According to McKibben’s article, the initiative first grew on college campuses, reaching municipal and state governments soon thereafter. Resulting in 155 campuses that divested, the movement also sparked various forms of binding economic action – taken by more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 countries – against the companies present in the South African apartheid regime.
“The hope is that it will start with universities and then ripple out to some local governments and state governments and, eventually, national organizations,” Jubelirer said.
Student leaders of divestment campaigns at Boston?area universities including Boston University, Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern and Brandeis meet weekly to talk about how their campaigns are going and how they can support each other, Riester said.
“It was different [from] anything I’d done before because it felt like a national thing rather than just a thing on the campus,” sophomore Sabrina McMillin, a member of REC, said of her experience at her first meeting.
SJSF and REC will look to bring a two?fold argument for divestment to the table when eventually approaching the Tufts Board of Trustees. First and foremost, they argue that Tufts should choose to divest so student educations are not being subsidized by an industry that is jeopardizing their future, according to Jubelirer. Second, the campaign relies on a body of new economic research that suggests Tufts will be better off in the long run removing its funds from a dying industry, due to the inevitable pop of the carbon bubble.
In light of these and similar studies, Jubelirer hopes to show the administration that socially?responsible investing does not hurt returns, and that it is possible to earn the same or better returns while prioritizing social good.
The specific changes the campaign will eventually propose to the Board of Trustees are still being formulated. These ideas, though, will be flexible with the hope of triggering a two?sided conversation.
“We’re definitely not proposing we make any investment decisions for the University,” Jubelirer said. “Tufts hires a lot of really smart people to manage their endowment, so we want them to figure out how to invest responsibility and … in industries that don’t have a severe negative social and environmental impact.”
Only in its first phase, the campaign is looking to gain student support and awareness on campus before going to the administration.
“Short?term, we hope to build student power around this issue,” Jubelirer said. “There [are] so many students who care about environmental issues and social justice issues … In this first semester, we’d love to organize, educate the campus and get a lot of support.”
The campaign is looking to gain a broad base of student support through a petition currently circulating around campus. An intercollegiate group of students came up with the petition at the end of the summer, according to Lello?Smith.
“We hope that the petition will show the Tufts administration that students don’t want their school to be complicit in global climate change,” Jubelirer said.
According to Jubelirer, education and awareness are primary concerns for the new organization and will be tackled in these early stages.
“We hosted an informal teach?in for our group so we could learn more about the issues – what is the science of climate change, is divestment actually a good idea, is divestment possible – and talking about different organizing strategies,” Jubelirer said.
In addition to building a basic knowledge base among students involved in this campaign in particular, a significant goal of these students is to encourage the student body to be interested in and aware of the issue of divestment.
“We’re going to try to bombard students with this issue by having fun, visible events to get students asking about what we’re doing,” Lello?Smith said.
Despite REC’s admirable goals to combat climate change and the use of fossil fuels, the possibility of divestment on such a large scale remains questionable.
“The bylaws for the University give the responsibility for directing our endowment to our trustees,” Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell said.
Furthermore, Tufts no longer invests directly in companies, but rather invests through fund managers. This strategic shift complicates the issue for several reasons. According to Campbell, Tufts does not direct how the fund invests that money, and the Board signs a disclosure agreement with these companies.
“Given the way we invest, it would be virtually impossible to assure you [that] we could divest ourselves from what the petition called for in divestment of fossil fuel,” Campbell said.
While the REC and the fossil fuel divestment campaign are both new to campus this semester, the concept of students taking an interest in the endowment is not.
The Advisory Committee for Endowment Responsibility (ACER) is a small group of students who work with the Board to figure out how student?based proposals can improve the responsibility of the endowment while maintaining its financial responsibility to get the highest returns possible, according to co?president Kelsea Carlson.
In the 2011 spring semester, the group pitched to move $1 million of the endowment’s immediate cash into local banks in the Cambridge area.
“It’s our way of supporting the local community, and they’re getting similar returns, so it’s a win?win,” Carlson, a senior, said.
In the context of a surge of interest in endowment issues in the last several years, ACER hopes to promote campus?wide education.
“I think one of the things we started last spring that I want to see continued is we bring in speakers doing this kind of work to educate the rest of the community,” Carlson said. “I think when Tufts is more aware of these issues there might be more progress.”
ACER is a strong supporter of environmental issues and hopes to put together a proposal for the Board this spring involving related concerns, but the group does not see divestment as the best way to achieve these goals.
“It’s so hard to measure the use of fossil fuels because they can be used in any stage of the production of a product,” Carlson said. “Moving forward, it might be an interesting proposal instead to provide research on fund managers that are environmentally aware and responsible, do not support the use of fossil fuels and incorporate that into their investment strategy.”
The specific proposals for divestment from SJSF and REC are still in the beginning stages, and the actions this campaign will trigger remain unknown. Alternatives to complete divestment as it is now intended certainly exist and perhaps offer a more realistic compromise between students and the administration.
“The area of corporate social responsibility is a growing and important one,” Campbell said. “I think that’s potentially a positive way for students to be advocates and scholars, in really looking at what makes that feasible and possible.”
The campaign, however, does not plan to throw in the towel easily.
“We are lucky to be part of a growing group of 50 colleges wanting their schools to divest,” Jubelirer said. “Tufts has a massive opportunity to come out strongly against climate change that can really ripple out.”