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Spreading Like Wildfire, Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Striking a Moral Chord

The primary aim of student-led campaign at 150-plus universities is to make climate change the moral issue of the generation.

Dec 6, 2012
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Kick-off of the Do The Math tour in Seattle

No one involved in the campaign who spoke with InsideClimate News believes divestment could financially harm the fossil fuel industry.

"On one level, you could dismiss this campaign as a gesture," said Mulkey of Unity College. But for a university board member to even consider divesting "is a powerful statement about where a politically important constituency sees their ethical considerations falling."

Mulkey noted that Unity's divestments have gone smoothly. "Our investment company [Spinnaker Trust] ... has been thrilled to help us," he said. "Divesting isn't unfeasible. It is quite possible and quite practical."

Only 3 percent of the college's $13.5 million in endowment money remains in fossil fuels, compared to 10 percent in 2008. Mulkey said he expects to be below 1 percent "relatively quickly." The university has been slowly divesting for a few years but made it official this month.

Harvard Battleground

The most crucial battleground and test for the spreading movement is Harvard University, with its $32 billion endowment and global recognition. 

In late November, 72 percent of the roughly 3,600 undergraduates who participated in student elections voted for Harvard to remove money from fossil fuel companies. Soon after that vote, Harvard alumni came rushing to student organizers offering their support for divestment.

Harvard divested from companies during three other high-profile campaigns—from firms that did business in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s, from tobacco giants in the 1990s and from companies working in Sudan in the mid 2000s. 

Kevin Galvin, Harvard's director of news and media relations, told InsideClimate News the university "is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels." He would not comment on why.  

Henn at 350.org called the move surprising, "considering that one of the reasons we know so much about climate change is because Harvard scientists have done such groundbreaking work on it." Some of the world's leading climate scientists work at Harvard and have published landmarks papers, including data exposing China's actual carbon dioxide emissions for the first time and research detailing the processes that affect regional climate change.

"It has been frustrating to watch our friends at Tufts gain a meeting with their executive vice president right away, but have the Harvard administration ignore our requests and the overwhelming student vote," said Alli Welton, a sophomore at Harvard, who is helping to spearhead the school's divestment effort.

"Our campaign isn't slowing down," said Welton, who noted that students are now focused on involving faculty in the fight. "They've divested in the past, so we're hopeful we'll be able to convince them to do it again."

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