Coal Divestment Campaigns: Universities Lead the Charge Against Fossil Fuels

"A few years ago, there was no movement... and now everyone is looking to Swarthmore, and we are saying that we will divest."

One of the leaders of Swarthmore University's Divest from Coal Campaign, speaking at the Power Up! convergence held there several weeks ago, alluded to defining feature of the chronology of activism around climate change and environmental issues: although the core message may be the same, the strategies change. While some groups advocate for changes in legislation and policy, and others fight for increased education and public awareness around issues of climate change, college students across the nation are heading straight to the seat of power: universities.

Specifically, Swarthmore was one of the first in a series of student groups pressuring their university management boards to “divest” from fossil fuels — to remove or sell off any investments in companies in the fossil fuel pipeline. The strategy parallels that of university students who pressured their schools to drop investments in businesses working in South Africa in the 1980s, attempting to contribute to the eventual lifting of apartheid.

That effort has been largely viewed as successful in shaping public discourse and leading to the desired policy outcome, but its results have been difficult to replicate with the divestment movement for a number of reasons. Fossil fuels comprise a much larger portion of the stock market, and universities argue that divesting would prevent them from fulfilling their mandate to grow their endowments. While some students see this as a social and environmental justice issue, others support the cause as a deliberate attempt to continue to bring climate change into the national dialogue in a meaningful way, a position that universities are less likely to full embrace.

Power Up! brought together over 150 students from 70 universities to bolster the national movement — to network, share strategies, trade ideas, and come together behind their shared goals. Jasmine Ruddy, a UNC sophomore who traveled to the convergence, notes that “although the divestment movement is large and continuing to grow, this convergence helped us all connect and leave stronger and more unified than ever. As the saying goes, a movement really is larger than the sum of its parts.”

The successes are beginning, albeit on a very small scale. Small universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have indicated that they will begin to remove coal and fossil fuels from their investment portfolios. Very few large universities have indicated that they are open to divesting, and this is where the challenge lies for student activists, because these are the universities with the most investing power. Student protests in the 1980s began to succeed only when students went to the extremes of sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience. To really convince their universities, the current generation of activists might find themselves doing the same — this time in the name of the environment.