By Activists On the Ground in NYC
The big news on the climate change front is that scientists have determined that the earth’s atmosphere now consists of 400 ppm carbon dioxide, the direct result of the increased burning of oil, gas and coal. This new finding is breathing an increased sense of urgency, indeed, a sense of emergency, into the climate justice movement: we must end the age of fossil fuel as quickly as humanly possible and become a planet powered by carbon-free energy.
Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are playing a key role in this transformation by revoking the moral license of oil, gas and coal companies by way of their shareholders. Large institutional investors, like colleges and universities, have the financial power to amplify one of the essential messages of climate justice: fossil fuel is killing the planet and we refuse to support that destruction any longer. There are currently 308 active college and university divestment campaigns in the United States and 105 city and state campaigns. In less than a year, 4 colleges have successfully divested and 12 cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have publicly committed to selling off all their fossil fuel industry stocks.
The NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free campaign led by students, faculty, and alumni at New York University, held its first meeting with the NYU administration this past April. The group presented its core argument that climate change is a direct threat to the university mission—and therefore the mission of the endowment—to support students and their future. By investing in the very industry that is guaranteeing a future defined by climate instability, the university is compromising this core mission. The group was encouraged by the administration’s response. Mike Alfano, Vice President of NYU, said that they agreed entirely with the fundamental argument that climate change is happening, and that it’s threatening the mission of the university. The only reservations he and the administration expressed were ones of the practicalities and effectiveness of divestment as a tactic.
The administration was concerned about the potential loss in revenue that a purge of fossil fuel stock might cause. Since the rise of the divestment movement last Fall, investment professionals have come forward with encouraging reports that a ‘fossil fuel free’ portfolio would have competitive returns with a traditional stock selection. Recently, a report published by the Aperio Group determined that the potential loss of return of divestment is close to zero.
The NYU administration also doubted the efficacy of divestment as a strategic tactic to fight the fossil fuel industry. They mentioned that perhaps vying for government action would be a better use of time and energy. The problem is that the fossil fuel industry has been in bed with our government for many years. The industry spends billions each year lobbying congress to uphold fossil-friendly policies and encourage new ones. Our elected officials have shown us time and time again that they are too tied to the fossil fuel industry to respond to our concerns about climate change. Divesting from fossil fuel sends the message to the industry and to politicians alike that we are capable of affecting change with or without their support.
As divestment activists, we are aware of both the effectiveness and the limitations of our tactic. Members at all levels of the national campaign have emphasized that divestment will only work in solidarity with a host of other tactics. For example, the first national fossil fuel divestment convergence at Swarthmore College, held in February, reaffirmed the importance of standing in solidarity with the frontline communities that have been battling big oil, gas and coal for decades.
The divestment demand is inherently a negative one. But it has the potential to be framed in a much more positive and inspiring narrative. The very action of divestment begs the question of reinvestment. Divestment calls on us to re-imagine our relationship with financial markets, to reexamine how we value people versus profit. It calls on our institutions to reconnect their values with their actions. In the face of climate change is a unique opportunity to draw creativity from destruction. Dreaming up a new vision for a post-carbon world is not easy—if it was, we’d already have gotten there. Those of us who feel the deep imperative to preserve our planet and our humanity have both the challenge and the blessing to pave the way. We begin with divestment, but we end with a happier, healthy planet—and that’s a goal we can all get behind.
Sophie Lasoff is a student at New York University studying Environmental Studies and Social Entrepreneuship, and an organizer with NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free.
Dan Asselin is an alumni of Brooklyn College with a BFA in creative writing, a folk singer-songwriter and an organizer with CUNY Divest.