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. (more…)