Do The Math
The movement to divest from fossil fuels first gained national attention when 350.org, an international nonprofit environmental organization, began promoting the campaign during its “Do the Math” tour in November 2012. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, was the keynote speaker in the tour.
The exponential growth of interest in fossil fuel divestment arose after the Do the Math tour.
350.org is partnered with a number of other organizations, including the Better Future Project, the California Student Sustainability Coalition, and the Sierra Student Coalition.
Deirdre Smith, the West Coast Fossil-Free Organizer with 350.org, said that the organization researched the campaign for about a year before deciding to throw its full political weight behind the movement.
“350 really felt that divestment was the tool that would bring the movement that we’re trying to build for climate justice to a national level and create the paradigm shift we need to start addressing the climate crisis,” Smith said.
Divest the West
This past October, 350.org sent out one of its regular e-mail updates with a special postscript: a call to student activists interested in getting involved in a new campaign against the fossil fuel industry. Jess Grady-Benson PZ ’14, Kai Orans PO ’14, and Meagan Tokunaga PO ’15 all signed up. Soon after, Smith contacted them to organize a group of 5C students to attend the nearby Do the Math tour stop at University of California, Los Angeles.
“Some schools [I work with] have five or 10 students organizing, but these three students are working on five campuses and blew me away with their creativity and outreach,” Smith said. “Within five days, they organized over 80 students to march through UCLA’s campus.”
350.org asked Smith to find a student to speak at the UCLA meeting. Smith was so impressed with Grady-Benson’s previous environmental work on campus that she knew she was perfect to speak alongside McKibben in front of more than 1,000 students in UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom.
From that first action, the divestment campaign in Claremont exploded. The 5C rally at UCLA gained the attention of the Los Angeles Times as one of the first campuses on the West Coast to implement a divestment campaign. The Claremont campaign was also specifically mentioned in the New York Times and in a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben.
The Claremont divestment team is organized differently from other campuses’ teams because of the nature of the consortium. The team consists of a core group of two to three students from each college. Grady-Benson, Orans, and Tokunaga are the lead organizers of the core team. Grady-Benson and Tokunaga are currently 350.org interns. Orans and Tokunaga also interned at the 350.org office in Oakland, Calif. this past summer.
For the activists closely involved with the movement, divestment is not the sole answer to the climate crisis. They recognize that individual colleges divesting their share of their endowments will have a negligible financial impact on the fossil fuel industry, but stress that divestment involves more than just finances.
“We view divestment as a lot more than just financial impact. It’s a social and political impact,” Orans said. “Colleges and universities have always had a powerful position on social and political issues of the time. Climate change is the issue [of our] time.”
Char Miller, the Director and W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona, believes that the greatest benefit of the divestment campaign is its success in opening up the national conversation on climate change.
“Divestment is really a moral claim made in the civic arena … It’s a way to force open into the public a debate about the way we are living now and why those patterns of living need to change,” Miller said.
In the past, much of environmental activism has been splintered into many different campaigns with little progress. In particular, there has been a difference in the environmental justice and climate change activism movements.
The concept of environmental justice focuses on the idea that certain individuals make up “frontline communities” that disproportionately suffer the effects of environmental degradation.
“There’s this belief that the mainstream environmental movement is primarily comprised of upper middle class white people and that it doesn’t take into consideration issues of environmental justice and low-income communities and minorities,” Grady-Benson said.
“The fight for climate justice is not a one-race problem,” she said. “Everybody is affected by climate change, and we need to take into consideration those who are disproportionately affected. We need to unite these movements so that we can fight together.”
Three schools—Unity College, Hampshire College, and Sterling College—have divested their funds from fossil fuel stocks. In December, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn urged the $1.9 billion Seattle pension fund to divest and committed to divesting all city funds.