A divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies has swept college campuses across the country since it began just four weeks ago, catching university presidents by surprise.
The effort is the result of a student-led campaign coordinated by 350.org, a climate advocacy organization founded by author and activist Bill McKibben. The goal is to turn global warming action into the moral issue of this generation.
"Bottom line, for a college or university, you do not want your institution to be on the wrong side of this issue," said Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College in Maine.
Unity became the first college to authorize divestment using 350.org's guidelines last month. "We realized that investing in fossil fuels was an unethical position, especially considering our focus on environmental issues," Mulkey said.
Since then, students at dozens of other universities have sat down with senior administrators and boards of trustees to lobby them to sell holdings in coal, oil and gas companies. Divestment campaigns are now underway at 153 colleges and universities, large and small from coast to coast. The organizers expect to reach 200 after the winter break.
"We've been totally blown away by how fast it's spread," said Jamie Henn, a spokesperson with 350.org.
According to scientific data culled by the group, the world can release just 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Any hotter than that and climate change could pose a dangerous threat to the planet and human survival. The problem, 350.org says, is that fossil fuel companies have another 2,795 gigatons in their reserves that they want to burn.
On 350.org's divestment website, student activists can download a campaign toolkit including sample petitions, scientific data and a list of the 200 fossil fuel companies being targeted by the group.
Most universities already have aggressive climate action plans to cut their carbon footprints. And more than 650 college and university presidents have signed on to the Presidents' Climate Commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
To sway administrators, students come armed with scientific reports and divestment proposals—and the argument that taking a financial stand against global warming is the next logical step in the school's climate efforts.
Among other happenings, Syracuse University told students it would consider divestment of its $940 million endowment. At Tufts University, which has endowment assets of $1.45 billion, students met with the school's executive vice president and are planning to submit a proposal for divestment to the board of trustees later this week and meet with the board early next semester.
At least one big-city mayor, Mike McGinn of Seattle, said he planned to investigate how the city could divest its pension-fund holdings. Currently, $17.6 million of Seattle's $1.9 billion pension fund is invested in ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Vermont, McKibben's home state, is expected to consider legislation fueled by the student campaign.
John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group, told InsideClimate News that targeting stable and profitable investments in coal, oil and gas could backfire.
"Students haven't thought this through," Felmy said. "If you suddenly divest yourself of good performing assets, the only people you're harming are students that rely on scholarships."
Chris Davis, director of investor programs at Ceres, a coalition of large investors and environmental groups, said it would be wonderful if divestment raises the profile of climate change among lawmakers in Washington. But he's also wary of the risks.
"Oil, gas and coal power our economics right now," he told InsideClimate News. "The people in charge of endowments have a fiduciary responsibility to the people relying on the funds—people that need salaries and scholarships. Pulling completely away from fossil fuel investments right now is risky."
The leaders of the divestiture campaign are thinking long term.
The campaign thrusts the climate issue in front of "some of the most influential people in this country," said Henn of 350.org—people who sit on the boards of America's colleges and universities, which hold about $400 billion in endowment assets.
It also engages a key constituency—students. Fossil fuel companies may be able to lobby Washington policymakers, but "they can't be on every campus at every moment influencing students like this campaign is," Henn said, adding that the 2008 and 2012 elections demonstrated how important the youth vote is in politics.