With the triumph of racist, anti-Free Speech extremists in the conflict at the University of Missouri [see below for links to news stories and commentaries on the UM crisis], it’s a good time to take a look at another campus campaign based on ignorance and superstition: the effort to pressure colleges and universities to get rid of their investments in carbon-based fuels (commonly and wrongly called “fossil fuels”).
The National Association of Scholars has a new report, posted at https://www.nas.org/projects/divestment_report (PDF at https://www.nas.org/images/documents/NAS_insideDivestment_fullReport.pdf), that details the effort.
To give you a taste of what’s in the NAS report, here’s a timeline showing how the “divestment” movement grew from nothing to a national campaign, one that threatens public pensions funds and other investment funds as well as those of academic institutions.
A digest of the timeline from the NAS report:
October 2006. Bill McKibben, a visiting professor at Middlebury College, and six students organize Step It. Over the period 2008-2011, the group (also known as 1 Sky) becomes 350.org. It is the leading organization in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
[NOTE: “350” refers to the level of carbon dioxide, or CO2, that the group believes is the maximum if humans are to avoid disaster – 350 parts per million, or 1/2857th of the atmosphere. The figure in the 19th Century is believed to have been 280 parts per million, or 1/3571st of the atmosphere. The current estimate for atmospheric carbon dioxide is 400 parts per million, or 1/2500th of the atmosphere, the rough equivalent of five tablespoons of water in a 50-gallon tub.]
Fall 2009. The Sierra Student Coalition’s Campuses Beyond Coal campaign urges colleges to shut down on-campus coal power plants. This effort becomes the foundation for the divestment campaign.
October 2010. After Professor George Lakey (Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania ) takes students on a fall break visit to West Virginia coal country, the student group Swarthmore Mountain Justice forms to oppose coal mining and demand divestment from the “sordid sixteen” carbon-based fuel companies with “the dirtiest environmental and human rights records.”
June 2011. Student groups meet in Washington, D.C. at offices of the Wallace Global Fund (named after former Vice President Henry Wallace, 1948 presidential candidate of the Soviet-front Progressive Party; founded in 1995 by Wallace’s son). The students launch a series of divestment campaigns, “Divest Coal,” at six colleges.
November 2011. The Carbon Tracker Initiative in London releases a report warning about that energy companies already have, in their reserves, five times more carbon-based energy sources than would be sufficient to trigger catastrophe. These are (supposedly) “stranded assets” that cannot be used and are, therefore, worthless – the equivalent of worthless mortgage-backed securities during the financial crisis.
January 2012. Hampshire College, the first school to divest from South Africa during apartheid, is the first academic institution to divest from carbon-based fuels.
July 2012. Divestment activists at Swarthmore College and Earlham College go on a “Divest Coal Frontlines Listening Tour” in Appalachia. On July 28, they join with Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS) to shut down Hobert mine, the largest strip mine in West Virginia, for three hours. Students plan to double the number of campus campaigns to 12 by the fall.
Summer 2012. The divestment movement grows to 50 campaigns, including at Brown University, Harvard University, and Columbia University.
August 2012. Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in Rolling Stone goes viral. Based on the five-times-catastrophe argument [see November 2011, above], McKibben argues that 80 percent of all carbon-based fuel reserves must be left in the ground.
November 2012. Bill McKibben launches a “Do the Math” speaking tour at 21 cities in the United States, and 350.org launches the Go Fossil Free: Divest from Fossil Fuels! Campaign (counting 100 separate efforts). Unity College in Maine divests. Go Fossil Free counts 100 active campaigns.
December 2012. Seattle commits to divest its daily operational budget.
February 2013. Sterling College in Vermont divests. The first national student divestment activist “convergence” is held at Swarthmore College with students from 77 colleges and universities.
March 2013. College of the Atlantic in Maine divests.
April 2013. Green Mountain College in Vermont divests. Eleven students at Rhode Island School of Design hold the first sit-in.
May 2013. 350.org declares “Fossil Freedom” day with 50 protests and rallies. The Swarthmore College board of trustees meets with students, staff, and faculty to discuss the issue; 100 students with Swarthmore Mountain Justice disrupt the meeting and take over the microphones to make demands on divestment and other left-wing causes. San Francisco State University Foundation commits to divest from direct holdings in coal and tar sands.
Summer 2013. Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network forms.
October 2013. The Harvard President calls “climate change” “one of the world’s most consequential challenges” but rejects divestment as a dangerously “instrumentalizing” the endowment. Foothill-De Anza Community College Foundation in California divests from direct holdings. Naropa University in Colorado freezes investments in carbon-based fuel companies and pledges to divest within five years.
December 2013. Go Fossil Free launches “#RejectionDenied,” a Twitter hashtag and the name of strategy to “escalate” campaigns and overturn rejections. Peralta Community College District in California pledges to divest within five years.
February 2014. Prescott College in Arizona pledges to divest within three years.
April 2014. San Francisco State University hosts a second divestment convergence, with more than 200 students attending. Pitzer College in California announces that it will divest from all direct holdings by the end of the year and create the Pitzer Sustainability Fund within the endowment to invest in “environmentally responsible investments.” In California, Humboldt State University, which hasn’t held direct investments in carbon-based fuel companies for more than a decade, adopts a “stricter” investment policy related to “concerning sectors” such as casinos, tobacco and alcohol, utilities, and aerospace and defense.
May 2014. A student participating in “Divest Harvard” is arrested for blocking access to a building. Stanford University divests from direct investments in coal companies.
Summer 2014. The Divestment Student Network forms the “Escalation Core” to orchestrate more aggressive actions. Students take “#BankOnUs” pledges to continue organizing.
June 2014. The British Medical Association becomes the first medical organization to divest from fossil fuels. Union Theological Seminary announces that it will divest all “separately managed accounts” and withdraw from any commingled funds that “are not central to our portfolio.” University of Dayton, a Jesuit university in Ohio, commits to eliminate fossil fuel holdings from its domestic equity accounts and “invest in green and sustainable technologies or holdings.”
September 2014. One day before the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York City, the PCM Youth Convergence draws thousands of student activists for training and launches “UnKoch My Campus” efforts to reject funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. The PCM itself draws a claimed 400,000 people (New York Times estimate: 311,000). The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announces that it will reduce coal and tar sands to one percent of the portfolio by the end of the year and “determine an appropriate strategy for further divestment over the next few years.” At the Climate Summit in New York City, the UN releases a divestment action plan.
November 2014. Students at Syracuse University occupy the president’s office demanding divestment and making other left-wing demands. Canada’s first Fossil Free Convergence brings together 80 students. Seven student members of Divest Harvard file a lawsuit against Harvard for failing to divest; they say the university is guilty of “mismanagement of charitable funds” and they claim Harvard is funding “climate change denial” which has “a chilling effect on academic freedom” and undermines graduates’ job prospects. (The suit is dismissed in March 2015.)
December 2014. California State University-Chico commits to divest within four years. California Institute of the Arts, which has no direct investments in carbon-based fuels, will withdraw 25 percent of its indirect investments over the next five years.
January 2015. Goddard College in Vermont divests. The University of Maine System divests from direct investments in coal companies. University of Maine Presque-Isle announces that it divested in 2013-2014.
February 2015. The New School in New York announces its divestment plan and the creation of a curriculum to make students into “climate citizens.” Pushing back against divestment, the Environmental Policy Alliance releases a cartoon video depicting a boy who “breaks up” with carbon-based fuels and ends up without electricity, modern technology, or consumer goods. 350.org organizes Global Divestment Day, with 450 events in 60 countries. Natalie Portman, Cornel West, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. endorse Divest Harvard. Brevard College, a Methodist-affiliated college in North Carolina, commits to divest by 2018. The “multidenominational” Pacific School of Religion in California commits to divest.
March 2015. The Guardian newspaper, partnering with 350.org, launches a petition to urge the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to divest. In the first 24 hours, 60,000 people sign the petition. “Divestment spring” begins with a sit-in at Swarthmore College. UN “climate change” official Christiana Figueres endorses the sit-in. (The sit-in ends when the board of trustees agrees to consider the proposal – which, in May, they reject.) Another sit-in, involving 20 students, is held at University of Mary Washington. William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, denounces divestment in a Washington Post op-ed. Syracuse University announces it will divest from direct holdings [which, it turned out, the school didn’t have] and screen out carbon-based fuels.
April 2015. The Guardian announces its plan to divest. About two dozen student stage a sit-in at Bowdoin College, and 48 students sit-in outside the president’s office at Yale. Divest Harvard holds Harvard Heat Week, with speeches by Bill McKibben, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, and former Senator Tim Wirth. University of Washington announces it will divest from direct holdings in coal companies by the end of the year.
May 2015. Adler University in Illinois divests. The University of Hawaii System divests and commits to reducing exposure in commingled funds to one percent.
June 2015. Rhode Island School of Design divests from direct holdings in fossil fuels. Georgetown University announces it will divest from direct investments in coal.
As the authors of the NAS report note: “The fossil fuel divestment movement is an attack on freedom of inquiry and responsible social advocacy in American higher education. The movement impresses on a generation of students an attitude of grim hostility to intellectual freedom, democratic self-government, and responsible stewardship of natural resources. This study shows how that is happening.” Again, you can download the report at https://www.nas.org/projects/divestment_report (PDF at https://www.nas.org/images/documents/NAS_insideDivestment_fullReport.pdf).
Here are links I promised above, dealing with recent, disastrous events at the University of Missouri: