I wrote this for a guest post on Cathy O’Neil’s blog mathbabe.

Climate change is one of those issues that I heard about as a kid, and I assumed naturally that scientists, political leaders, and the rest of the world would work together to solve it. Then I grew up and realized that never happened.

Carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to rise and extreme weather is becoming normal. Meanwhile, nobody in politics seems to want to act, even when major scientific organizations — and now the World Bank — have warned us in the strongest possible terms that the current path towards {4^{\circ} C} or more warming is an absolutely terrible idea (the World Bank called it “devastating”).

A little frustrated, I decided to show up last fall at my school’s umbrella environmental group to hear about the various programs. Intrigued by a curious-sounding divestment campaign, I decided to show up at the first meeting. I had zero knowledge of or experience with the climate movement, and did not realize what it was going to become.

Divestment from fossil fuel companies is a simple and brilliant idea, popularized by Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” As McKibben observes, there are numerous reasons to divest, both ethical and economic. The fossil fuel reserves of these companies — a determinant of their market value — are five(!) times what scientists estimate can be burned to stay within 2 degree warming. Investing in fossil fuels is therefore a way of betting on climate change. It’s especially absurd for universities to invest in them, when much of the research on climate change took place there.

The other side of divestment is symbolic. It’s not likely that Congress will be able to pass a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system anytime soon, especially when fossil fuel companies are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns. A series of university divestments would draw attention to the problem. It would send a message to the world: that fossil fuel companies should be shunned, for basing their business model on climate change and then for lying about its dangers. This reason echoes the apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s.

With support from McKibben’s organization 350.org, divestment took off last fall to become a real student movement, and today, over 300 American universities have active
divestment campaigns from their students. Four universities — Unity College,
Hampshire College, Sterling College, and College of the Atlantic — have already divested. Divestment is spreading both to Canadian universities and to other non-profit organizations. We’ve been covered in the New York Times, endorsed by Al Gore, and, on the other hand, recently featured in a couple of rants by Fox News.

Divest Harvard

At Harvard, we began our fall semester with a small group of us quietly collecting student petition signatures, mostly by waiting outside the dining halls, but occasionally by going door-to-door among dorms. It wasn’t really clear how many people supported us: we received a mix of enthusiasm, indifference, and occasional amusement from other students.

But after enough time, we made it to 1,000 petition signatures. That was enough to allow us to get a referendum on the student government ballot. The ballot is primarily used to elect student government leaders, but it was our campaign that rediscovered the use of referenda as a tool of student activism. (Following us, two other worthy campaigns — one on responsible investment more generally and one about sexual assault — also created their own referenda.)

After a week of postering and reaching out to student groups, our proposition—that Harvard should divest—won with 72% of the undergraduate student vote. That was a real turning point for us. On the one hand, having people vote on a referendum isn’t the same as engaging in the one-on-one conversations that we did when convincing people to sign our petition. On the other hand, the 72% showed that we had a real majority in support. The statistic was quickly picked up by the media, since we were the first school to win a referendum on divestment (UNC has since had a winning referendum with 77% support).

That was when the campaign took off. People began to take us seriously. The Harvard administration, which had previously said that they had no intention of considering divestment, promised a serious, forty-five minute meeting with us. We didn’t get what we had aimed for — a private meeting with President Drew Faust — but we had acquired legitimacy from the administration. We were hopeful that we might be able to negotiate a compromise, and ended our campaign last fall satisfied, plotting the trajectory of our campaign at our final meeting.

The spring semester started with a flurry of additional activity and new challenges. On the one hand, we had to plan for the meeting with the administration—more precisely, the Corporation Committee on Social Responsibility. (The CCSR is the subgroup of the Harvard Corporation that decides on issues such as divestment.) But we also knew that the fight couldn’t be won solely within the system. We had to work on building support on campus, from students and faculty, with rallies and speakers; we also had to reach out to alumni and let them know about our campaign. Fortunately, the publicity generated last semester had brought in a larger group of committed students, and we were able to split our organization into working groups to handle the greater responsibilities.

In Februrary, we got our promised meeting with three members the administration. With three representatives from our group meeting with the CCSR, we had a rally with about 40 people outside to show support:

In the meeting, the administration representatives reiterated their concern about climate change, but questioned divestment as a tool. Unfortunately, since the meeting, they have continued to reiterate their “presumption against divestment” (a phrase they have used with previous movements). This is the debate we—and students across the nation—are going to have to win. Divestment alone isn’t going to slow the melting of the Arctic, but it’s a powerful tool to draw attention to climate change and force action from our political system—as it did against apartheid in the 1980s. There isn’t much time left.

One of the most inspirational things I’ve heard this semester was at the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. last month, which most of our group attended. Addressing a crowd of 40,000 people, Bill McKibben said “All I ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it.” To me, that’s one of the exciting and hopeful aspects about divestment—that it’s a movement of the people. It’s fundamentally an issue of social justice that we’re facing, and our group’s challenge is to convince Harvard to take it seriously enough to stand up against the fossil fuel industry.

In the meantime, our campaign has been trying to build support from student groups, alumni, and faculty. In a surprise turnaround, one of our members convinced alumnus Al Gore to declare his support for the divestment movement at a recent event on campus. We organized a teach-in the Tuesday before last featuring writer and sociologist Juliet Schor. On April 11, we will be holding
a large rally outside Massachusetts Hall to close out the year and to show support for divestment; we’ll be presenting our petition signatures to the administration.

Here’s our most recent picture, taken for the National Day of Action, with some supportive friends from the chess club:

Thanks to Joseph Lanzillo for proofreading a draft of this post.