Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.
Tucked away in President Obama’s June 25th address on climate change were two short words that meant the world to thousands of student activists across the country: “Invest. Divest.” These financial terms at first may seem out of place in a discussion about how we save our planet, but they may turn out to be the most important words uttered by the president.
Colleges across the country — mine included — have done amazing things to combat climate change: increasing energy efficiency, reconsidering fossil fuel usage, pursuing renewable energy projects ... the list goes on and on.
Now, the conversation about how colleges can most effectively be leaders in creating a better environment and future for today’s students is expanding. Students are bravely calling on their otherwise environmentally-conscious universities to end hypocritical investments in fossil fuel companies which cook the planet and put students’ short-term and long-term health at risk. Students are urging school administrations to go after what these companies hold most dear: profits.
UNC Chapel Hill made the decision in May 2010 to stop burning coal at or on our campus co-generation plant. In his announcement, Chancellor Holden Thorp said, "Universities must lead the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy.” He was absolutely right. Universities should be leaders of innovation and change.
But universities’ leadership doesn’t stop at the retirement of coal plants. Universities have enormous endowments — a whopping $2.2 billion at UNC — gifted from donors, endowments which they invest in various businesses and industries, including the coal industry. No matter how many renewable energy projects they have in place, no university can call itself truly ‘green’ if it continues to fund an industry that kills over 13,000 people a year, poisons our waterways, and is the primary source of climate change, particularly if that industry is one that the university has already denounced.
Divestment is a course of action that goes directly to the source — threatening the money that makes the coal industry tick, setting a moral example, and inspiring a chain reaction across the country. Students have always been key to enacting change, as in successful campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s to get universities to drop stocks in companies that did business with South Africa's racist apartheid regime and to divest from Big Tobacco. UNC was one of the first universities in the United States to call upon its administrators to divest from the dirty coal industry. Now, there are over 300 similar campaigns on colleges and in cities across the nation.
Continuing to hold on to investments in coal and fossil fuel companies is business as usual for universities. It demonstrates an unwillingness to move forward on climate action. Business as usual is destroying the planet. Business as usual has never made history, has never been heroic, and has certainly never created meaningful change.
Millennials are putting their feet down on this issue, but we can't do it alone. That’s why it is so crucial for college administrators, mayors, and other U.S. leaders to consider what is important and take a stand on climate change. It’s time to be brave, to be bold, and to be on the right side of history.
Invest. Divest. These words meant the world to activists like me and my peers, but they should also mean the world to everyone out there who cares about the planet. Go ahead and divest. Your president has given you the green light.
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