Sierra Magazine: Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.

Filthy Lucre

The new divestment movement calls on schools to get their money out of dirty energy

By Brooke Jarvis


Students at Seattle University rally before delivering 600 petition signatures calling for divestment to the school's administration. | Photo courtesy of Seattle University's Sustainable Student Action Club

Anurag Angara's first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is nearing its end, and he's waxing reminiscent in the spring sunshine outside the student center.

"I'm just a freshman, so a lot of my classes are intro level," he says--business and economics, a lot of theory 101. But there's one subject in which he has had a far more grounded education: UNC Chapel Hill's $2 billion-plus endowment. "That has been the really deep topic that I've learned about," he says.

"We know that power is not in one or two schools . . . The power comes when a lot of schools care enough to choose to divest." —JJ Jahr

"It's like a whole other academic experience," agrees his friend Jack Largess, a freshman studying environmental science and another endowment expert. "But with no tests."

"Only really big presentations," Angara adds, laughing.

Angara, Largess, and other members of UNC's Sierra Student Coalition are slated to address the university's board of trustees this fall. Their goal: to convince the body that UNC should drop its multimillion-dollar investments in a group of coal companies that the students call the "Filthy 15." That elite group includes Duke Energy, a Charlotte-based utility that provides most of North Carolina's electricity and donates millions to the university.

So, it's no small ask. But the students, who have been preparing for months, plan to argue that divesting the university's endowment from coal is a matter of moral and economic responsibility. They cite the Carbon Tracker Initiative's estimate that if we are to stop catastrophic climate change, 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, unburned. By divesting, says Stewart Boss, a recent graduate who helped launch the school's campaign, universities can "do their part to strip the social license from these coal and fossil fuel companies." That means publicly dissociating themselves from companies whose business models depend on burning carbon.

UNC's $2 billion-plus endowment "has been the really deep topic that I've learned about."
—Anurag Angara

When the Sierra Student Coalition kicked off its UNC campaign in 2011, it was one of just a handful of divestment drives in the nation. Now, more than 300 student-led campaigns are calling for divestment at colleges and universities across the country--and cities, churches, and other institutions will be targeted next. Some campaigns, like UNC's, focus on coal; others demand divestment from all fossil fuel companies.

The movement is beginning to get traction. At UNC, a campus referendum found that 77 percent of students want the university to divest from coal. Last spring, all five candidates for student body president endorsed divestment as well: "It was so popular that it was a PR thing for them," Angara says.


Seattle University students sign an oil barrel that says, "This does not belong here." | Photo courtesy of Seattle University's Sustainable Student Action Club

What eventual impact divestment may have on fossil fuel companies is open to debate. Climate activists like Bill McKibben say that the goal is largely political--stripping the companies of the clout that brings them economic and regulatory advantages. (See "Divestment: The Math.") But even in its early stages, the movement is having a major impact--on the lives of the students involved.

"If I'm going to pay all this money, and that money is being invested in ways that destroy the quality of my future, that doesn't make sense." —Maddy Salzman

Rachel Goldstein, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, entered college with plans to become an ecologist. But as she learned about climate change, she felt a new urgency. "The science is there," she says. "The problem is that people aren't listening. I asked myself, 'Where can I have the biggest impact?'"

Divestment seemed a logical choice--using her status as a student to push the largest institution she belongs to. She wants to remind university administrators that current students are part of a generation that will be around to see some of the scariest climate-model forecasts come true.

"I don't want to live in the world where the graph goes like that," says Maddy Salzman, another leader of Washington University's divestment campaign, gesturing upward to show an anticipated spike in atmospheric CO2 levels. She hadn't thought of herself as an activist prior to getting involved with divestment, but a speech by McKibben both scared and inspired her. "The point of going to college is to have a better future, right? But if I'm going to pay all this money, and that money is being invested in ways that destroy the quality of my future, that doesn't make sense," she says.

That's a sentiment echoed by a lot of divestment campaigners--a very personal source of the passion that keeps students focused in the face of long odds and makes what could be a wonky topic deeply meaningful. When Jasmine Ruddy, of UNC's Sierra Student Coalition, says, "Duke Energy talks a lot about investing more in renewable energy, but they mean 3 percent in the next 25 years," Erin McAnulty, another coalition member, interjects: "It's just an insult to our generation, a straight-up insult."

"I didn't think, 'This is impossible.' I just thought, 'We have to educate them.'"
—Erin McAnulty

Students have also been emphasizing the environmental justice argument for divestment, focusing on their responsibility to those who will feel the worst impacts of climate change, like the citizens of low-lying Bangladesh. That's a compelling message at Washington University, a private school where four years of education can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Riding out the storms on luck and privilege cannot be an excuse for doing nothing," Salzman says.

At Seattle University, a Jesuit school whose curriculum emphasizes social justice, equity is also sometimes an easier way to get students excited than an environmental appeal, says JJ Jahr, a recent graduate who helped start her school's campaign during her junior year. "To me, it feels like a capstone project: putting what I've learned here into action," she says.

Photos, from top: Madison Treadwell, Sameer Aery, Brittany Cronin, Rick McAnulty

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