The People’s Climate March in New York, way back in 2014. Craig Ruttle

The roots of divestment

This past May, Western announced it would incorporate its nonprofit foundation, the financial, donations, and investment arm of the university, under the university’s umbrella as part of its new Office of Advancement, led by vice president for advancement Mike LaPlante. 

With this transition, completed July 1, comes a perfect chance to reconsider the university’s investments, including offloading (or divesting, to use the more formal financial parlance) any investments in companies which produce, process, sell, and subsequently profit from oil, coal, and natural gas. 

The modern fossil fuel divestment movement draws inspiration from the apartheid divestment movement in South Africa, which proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s.

Roughly a half century ago, students and other political activists set out on a campaign to sever financial ties with the apartheid South African government, which had passed laws enshrining racial segregation and was carrying out a campaign of violent suppression against dissenters.

By 1985, 55 American colleges and universities had severed their financial ties to country, leading Desmond Tutu, the famed South African anti-apartheid activist, to claim that “there is no greater testament to the basic dignity of ordinary people everywhere than the divestment movement of the 1980s.

After nearly two decades of pressure, including trade and arms embargoes, the campaigns achieved success. In 1990, South Africa freed Nelson Mandela, the famed leader of the African National Congress and a persistent champion for racial equality. Then, in 1991, the South African government would pass laws formally ending apartheid, although its impacts still ripple through South Africa to this day.

More than 30 years ago, divestment played a critical role in the fight for structural change in South Africa. Divestment can play a key role today in the push to decarbonize the world and jettison the fossil fuel industry once and for all.

Now, Western students should consider launching their own campaign to divest Western from fossil fuel companies and other carbon-intensive companies which are, with their everyday profit-seeking activities, degrading the future of current and soon-to-be Mountaineer students. 

Divestment worldwide

“We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization,” McKibben told Rolling Stone way back in 2012, as collegiate divestment movements started to pick up steam.

More than a decade later, divestment is no less critical — it’s still a bet on a more sustainable, livable future. But universities have a duty to go above and beyond, not just ditching fossil fuel investments, but investing in positive climate action solutions on their campuses, in their surrounding communities, and in their financial portfolios.

Globally, divestment campaigns spearheaded by Bill McKibben’s and organized largely by youth and students have led thousands of public and private institutions managing more than $14 trillion to divest from fossil fuel companies that have wreaked havoc on our planet’s ability to sustain life.

Coincidentally, $14 trillion is roughly the amount of investment required to build out the renewable infrastructure required to reach 2050 carbon reduction targets, estimates Morgan Stanley.

At the heart of the divestment campaign is the fact that transnational corporations like Exxon have dragged their feet on meaningful decarbonization since their scientists alerted them to the realities of climate change back in the 1970s.

Despite the early knowledge — decades before the general public would become aware — that burning fossil fuels would have a significant negative impact on the Earths’ climate, the five biggest oil and gas firms spend about $200 million horde of lobbyists each year, deployed to control Congress and deter any meaningful action on climate change.

Another part of the fossil fuel playbook involves feigning attempts at change. In 2002, BP rebranded itself from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum”, pledging to hold its emissions constant and enact a shift towards cleaner energies.

Massive oil spills in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 and 2010 proved a significant roadblock to that attempted facelift, and the company has chugged right along with business as usual, posting more than $75 billion in gross profit in 2022.

Even after the largely praised but deeply flawed Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, a firehose of money from huge banks like JP Morgan Chase has poured into fossil fuel companies for the continued exploitation of oil and gas, roughly $3.8 trillion in just the half-decade after the agreement was inked.

This reflects a fundamental disconnect with reality. How else can a company whose product is strangling the planet be valued at more than $200 billion, as Shell is?

These companies, stubbornly staving off the future of alternative energies so they can enjoy one last profit gorge, have thrown billions into developing oil and gas resources even as young people, staring down the barrel of climate change and their dimming future prospects, report increasing anxiety about the future.

Nearly 60 percent of young people report feeling either “very” or “extremely” worried about our warming, weirding world. In recent years, they’ve taken to the streets in the millions to protest what they adamantly believe to be the active squandering of their future.

Those concerns are impacting the everyday, foundational choices of young Americas: Where to live, what careers to pursue (many have opted for ones in activism and environmentalism, feeling they’ve been given little choice in the matter), and whether to have children.

“Is it selfish for me to want to be a parent and to have this great experience if, when I die, I’m leaving my child in this apocalyptic world?” asks Sophia Grillo, a 22-year-old living in Florida.

An uninsurable future

Hard math backs the validity of those youthful concerns — just ask the insurance adjusters, who are peering into the future and acting according to their own interest, pulling out of markets that are destined for a future of drowning and burning.

Out in California, several major insurance companies are stepping back amid rampant wildfires, which have wreaked billions in damage. Down in Florida, insurance companies are fleeing due to the state’s increasingly untenable hurricane risk in what is being termed an “insurance crisis”.

Here in Colorado, climate change makes its presence known with two decades of persistent drought, punctuated by record-breaking fires and topped off with flooding and landslides.

And make no mistake, climate impacts will be felt globally. An 18-year-old entering Western in 2023 will be just 65 in 2070, when scientists have predicted that three billion people on Earth could live in areas as hot as the Sahara Desert is today.

All this to say: It’s about high time institutions, particularly public ones, pull out of the fossil fuel industry, which has reaped billions in wealth for its executives and shareholders — most of whom are insulated from severe climate impacts by their advanced age and wealth — at the expense of nearly everything else.

After 30 years of circular debate and climate action lite, spent endlessly waiting for seamless and painless technological saviors that have yet to fully arrive (but always seem to be just around the corner), we must act with the resources and technology we have at hand, most notably solar panels and wind turbines.

These technologies are imperfect and still do some harm, but far less so than broiling the planet.

Writing about the notion that AI could somehow solve climate change for The Guardian, columnist Naomi Klein notes that “the climate crisis is not, in fact, a mystery or a riddle we haven’t yet solved due to insufficiently robust data sets. We know what it would take, but it’s not a quick fix – it’s a paradigm shift.”

She’s right. The core reason we have not stemmed the rise of our planetary CO2 levels is not because we haven’t sufficiently mastered geothermal, wind, and solar energy, it’s because our societal appetite for consumption and profit is so utterly insatiable that it threatens to alter the very nature of our planet for millennia.

Divestment, at its core, is about reckoning with that opulence, and working to rein in these destructive impulses. It’s about stripping fossil fuel companies of their license to continue operating as usual in highly unusual times.

Divesting sends a clear message that a future that is compatible with human and animal life does not have any meaningful space for oil and gas giants like Shell, Exxon, and BP that have built a society where it becomes necessary for children and young adults to skip school in order to beg their political representatives to safeguard the planet they will soon inherit.

As Naomi Klein so artfully articulated, climate change is not a problem in need of a technical solution so much as a moral and values issue in need of a fundamental reimagining. We can create a bold new future, one that doesn’t rely on a subsidy provisioned by long-dead dinosaurs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), a global panel of climate scientists, released a summary report in March of 2023 that contained a stark warning to the world:

“Adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming. With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.”

No more excuses. It’s past time the university, and all higher education institutions, acted on behalf of their current and future students, heeding the call from scientists and divesting from fossil fuels.

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