Students power up nationwide fossil fuel divestment campaigns

The Tufts Community Union passed a resolution calling on the president and Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels earlier this month. (GoFossilFree.org)

The Tufts Community Union passed a resolution calling on the president and Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels earlier this month. (GoFossilFree.org)

The fossil fuel divestment movement is one of the fastest-spreading student movements in recent memory. In fall 2012, it grew from just six colleges and universities to over 200 in the course of a semester — thanks in large part to 350.org and Bill McKibben, whose Do The Math tour traveled to 21 cities across the country to highlight the terrifying math behind climate change and encourage students to start divestment campaigns. As a result, four colleges and the city of Seattle have already committed to fossil-fuel-free investment portfolios.

Meanwhile, ripples from divestment activism are already being felt in the political arena. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island mentioned divestment on the Senate floor as an example of the popular desire for climate legislation before taking part in Sunday’s Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by thousands of students mobilized by divestment.

The eventual role and impact of divestment within the broader climate justice movement, however, remains to be seen. This spring will be critical for the movement, as students transition from the optimistic and exciting work of starting a campaign to the long and challenging work of continuing it in the face of administrative obstacles.

To prepare for this important moment, students are gathering in Swarthmore, Pa., this weekend for the Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels Student Convergence, where they will be sharing the skills necessary to strengthen their campaigns at home and the movement as a whole. Convergence organizers say they hope to focus on two particular threads — how the divestment movement can enact and advance an environmental justice analysis, and how divestment campaigns can coordinate to become more than the sum of their parts.

A focus on environmental justice

The climate movement is undergoing a transformation in messaging and organizing priorities. Recent failures like the absence of climate legislation or a meaningful international agreement in President Barack Obama’s first term have made clear that the movement must both strengthen its internal alliances and cast a wider net in order to have a chance of victory.

New alliances were on display at the Forward on Climate rally, which was organized in tandem by 350.org, the Sierra Club and Hip-Hop Caucus. Although the crowd at the rally remained overwhelmingly white, the most prominent speakers included several indigenous activists who told moving personal stories about the effects of fossil fuels in their lives. Jacqueline Thomas, chief of the Saik’uz First Nation, said, “Never in my life have I ever seen white and native work together until now.”

In this shifting terrain, divestment remains a wild card. Some students have been using standard climate messaging that draws on science, while others have been promoting the opportunity for profitable investment in renewable energy. Others still have been lifting up the voices of communities most impacted by extraction and climate change. Organizers of the Power Up! convergence feel that the third path holds the greatest chance of success for the movement.

“Through the divestment movement we are challenging the legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry,” said Becca Rast, a Brown University senior. “It is critical that we stand in solidarity with communities that have been doing this for decades. It’s also fundamental for the creation of an energy system that prioritizes the human rights of people globally.”

In looking for reasons why the environmental movement has failed to achieve its ultimate goal of a sustainable society, it’s essential to consider the movement’s long history of marginalizing low-income communities, communities of color and indigenous people. As the late labor and Earth First! Organizer Judi Bari put it, “With the exception of the toxics movement and the native land rights movement, most U.S. environmentalists are white and privileged. This group is too invested in the system to pose it much of a threat… It is the working people who have their hands on the machinery. And only by stopping the machinery of destruction can we ever hope to stop this madness.”

While it’s true that everyone will be affected by climate change, it’s also true that not everyone will be affected equally. The stories from frontline communities, the people harmed daily by the fossil fuel industry, provide a glimpse of what more privileged people will also experience in the future. Prioritizing the leadership and voices of frontline communities can communicate that climate change is a human rights issue, personalize the abstract science of climate change and ultimately mobilize more people of all backgrounds to the cause.

Building national pressure

A common critique of divestment has been that it is not the most direct method of disempowering the fossil fuel industry. Critics argue that moving university money is unlikely to have an effect on companies’ stock prices, so a more prudent route for the movement would be to lobby Congress to pass a carbon tax or encourage the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce existing regulations.

Yet calls for governmental action have failed to galvanize a mass student movement, while calls for divestment have. On an issue as daunting as climate change, people are more likely to get involved with a campaign that seems winnable. To the average student, moving their university feels far more possible than moving the federal government. This factor — provided that people have a local target to mobilize around — is the greatest advantage of divestment.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a student activist who thinks that divestment will topple the fossil fuel industry by itself. That’s why Power Up! organizers are encouraging other students to think about how the movement can intentionally build national political pressure.

“We must prioritize the fossil fuel divestment campaigns we are working on today, while recognizing that winning these campaigns cannot be the end of this movement on our campuses,” said Greta Neubauer, a junior at Middlebury College. She hopes to see the cross-campus connections that are now being formed continue to strengthen toward “a stronger student movement that can mobilize in nonviolent protest to shift the national conversation about climate change.”

The question of nonviolent protest is an interesting one for this movement, considering that, so far, at no campuses have students engaged in civil disobedience. Organizers are clear, though, that this is a direction that the movement needs to take. Publicly shaming the fossil fuel industry and its enablers, and mobilizing others to do the same, is just as important as actually moving money. For some students, this will mean angering well-meaning but slow-moving administrators by escalating their tactics.

In 1977, 294 students at Stanford University were arrested at a sit-in for divestment from South Africa. Although the campaign was not immediately successful, the action catalyzed further nationwide action against apartheid. It remains to be seen when a fossil fuel divestment campaign will take a similar step.

Of course, being an archipelago of grassroots campaigns — as opposed to a top-down nonprofit organization — means the divestment movement will not arrive at one unified message or strategy. Nor does it need to; contests over how to talk about and campaign for divestment have the potential to be generative in their own right. The Power Up! convergence presents the opportunity for students to come together face-to-face and have a shared experience that can foster new kinds of collaboration and debate.

By facilitating conversations between students and frontline activists, the convergence will also challenge preconceptions about what environmentalism is. The climate movement is moving toward a focus on justice, but it has strides left to make. A new generation of leaders gathered in Swarthmore this weekend will begin to chart a path toward a stronger climate movement, one that may ultimately harness the strength to effectively challenge the fossil fuel industry.

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