The movement to push colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuels is heating up on campus. Everywhere you look, divestment sit-ins, protests, and rallies are sweeping across campuses. At Harvard this week, more than 1,000 students, alumni and professors have taken part in sit-ins, rallies and protests. Their blockade of key administration offices has forced school officials to relocate to a nearby Au Bon Pain.
Meanwhile, down at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, students have been occupying their administration’s offices for over three weeks. The protest garnered them a powerful endorsement from UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres who urged her alma mater to divest and “play its part in history.” World Bank President Jim Kim echoed her this week, saying he was “impressed” by the divestment effort on campuses.The protests keep on coming. On Wednesday, at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, police evicted thirty student from a building they were occupying on campus, arresting three of them. A few days earlier, Yale University cited 19 students for trespassing after they did a sit-in in the president’s office to demand divestment. And at Tulane University, where they know a thing or two about climate change and the impacts of the fossil fuel industry, more than 70 students are occupying their president’s office this week.
The seeds of the current divestment movement were planted back in 2011, when campuses like Swarthmore began to push their administrations to divest from coal. But the campaign really started to take root in November of 2012, when climate campaigners with 350.org, Energy Action Coalition, and others took to the road to rev up a national divestment movement. Since then, the effort has grown to over 400 colleges and universities across the United States and caught on internationally. This week, historic Edinburgh University, where they first discovered CO2, divested from coal and tar sands. Massive efforts are underway in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and beyond.
The campaign is putting the fossil fuel industry on the defensive. This February, just before a Global Divestment Day, the oil industry released a video called, “Breaking Up with Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do,” which features a boy in love with an oil barrel. The video received hundreds of thousands of views – largely because it was lampooned across the Internet as a ridiculously inept attempt to win back public opinion. “The speed at which the fossil fuel divestment campaign is growing seems to have rattled its opponents in the coal and oil lobbies,” wrote Damian Carrington in the Guardian.
The battle for the reputation of the fossil fuel industry isn’t just taking place on YouTube. Prominent politicians and public figures are increasingly coming out in support of the need to leave coal, oil and gas in the ground. Institutions from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency to the Bank of England and HSBC have all reiterated the inescapable logic that if we’re going to keep global warming below disastrous levels, roughly 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground.
That simple math is permeating into public consciousness, and the institutions that continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry are uncomfortably shifting in their seats. This Thursday, an email from Harvard President Drew Faust informed student leaders of Divest Harvard that she would be happy to meet (in private, off the record), but that first the group would have to stop “disrupting” business as usual on campus. Students responded that they’d be happy to meet, but wanted an actual dialogue about divestment – much like the open forum MIT recently hosted – rather than a lecture behind closed doors. And that they wouldn’t put a moratorium on protest until Harvard put a moratorium on its fossil fuel investments. Touché.
Students know they’re on the right path. At a kick-off event for the Harvard sit-ins, film director Darren Aronofsky reflected on his experience taking part in the anti-apartheid divestment campaign when he was a student at Harvard in the 1980s. “It’s amazing how similar that fight was to the fight today,” he said. “To us it was always as clear as day who was on the right side of history.” In the end, more than 155 colleges and universities divested from apartheid South Africa, helping activists inside the country bring down that brutal and oppressive regime.
Today’s divestment activists are taking the story to heart, and keeping up the fight. This week, students with Divest Harvard emblazoned their t-shirts with the words from a poem by Seamus Heaney:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
Students know the divestment wave is rising fast.