Students Fight for Colleges to Drop Fossil Fuel Holdings

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President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney hardly mentioned climate change in the 2012 presidential campaign, but college students across dozens of campuses have launched a campaign of their own. Their goal is to divest university endowments of holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The move against pollution and global warming is a conscious nod to the South Africa divestment effort of the 1980s, when activists rallied colleges and other institutions to drop stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.

Some smaller schools like Unity College in Maine immediately responded to their students' movement and quickly divested. Other schools, like Harvard University, which has the largest endowment in the country at $31 billion, ignored a student vote in favor of the school divesting from its holdings in coal, oil, and gas.

Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of 350.org, a grassroots organization working on a version of the divestment campaign, describes the campaign. Ken Redd, Director of Research and Policy at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, studies endowments. He explains how divestment might work.

"The analogy to what was done in South Africa is interesting, because one of the reasons why that movement was successful was that there were substitutes," Redd says. "If an organization decided they didn't want to invest in a South African company, they could find another country in the Middle Easy, say, that didn't have apartheid."    

"The fossil fuel industry has done everything it can to disinform about the science, to delay change, and it's just no longer okay for our universities, which is where we learned about these things, to be profiting from that climate wreckage," McKibben says. 

McKibben continues, "This is a terrifically powerful step, not just for its sort of direct economic sting, but because it allows everyone to understand that this has become a moral issue. We need to do to the fossil fuel industry, at this point, what happened to the tobacco industry."