As a new academic year begins after a summer of deadly heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods, many college students and faculty are debating whether and how to get involved in climate politics.
Climate advocacy has become well established on U.S. campuses over the past decade, in diverse forms. More than 600 colleges and universities have signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. Schools are expanding interdisciplinary teaching and research in environmental studies, sustainability science and climate resilience, and investing in “greening” their campuses. And many activists on campuses around the country are participating in global campaigns like “Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice” and “Keep it in the Ground.”
One of the most controversial strategies is campaigning for schools to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies. Campus divestment is widely viewed as mainly a student cause. But when I analyzed the movement with Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Yale (now Stanford) graduate student Leehi Yona, we found widespread faculty support for divestment. For example, in a survey at Harvard in spring 2018, 67 percent of faculty respondents supported divestment, while only 9 percent were opposed and 24 percent were neutral.
So far, however, only about 150 campuses worldwide have committed to fossil fuel divestment – and less than a third of those are in the United States. Why so few? I see two reasons. First, divestment is controversial because it acknowledges the need for radical change. Second, there is a disconnect in institutional priorities between administrators on one side and faculty and students on the other side.
A growing global movement
Fossil fuel divestment is intended to stigmatize the industry and hold companies accountable for opposing action to slow climate change and for their strategic misinformation campaign designed to confuse the public about climate science and the risks of climate change.
To date, over 800 institutions with assets valued at over US$6 trillion have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. They include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Guardian Media Group and the World Council of Churches.
New York City has set a goal of divesting its pension funds from fossil fuel companies by 2023. And in July 2018, the Irish parliament passed a bill making Ireland the first country in the world to divest from fossil fuels.
Student and faculty support
Our analysis of campus support for divestment focused on 30 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. We reviewed the number and type of faculty at these schools who had signed publicly available letters endorsing fossil fuel divestment. Over 4,550 faculty had taken such positions, representing all major disciplines and fields. They included 30 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and two Nobel laureates. These findings suggest that faculty engagement in the divestment movement is broader than generally realized.
Faculty support reflects concern about fossil fuel companies’ negative influence in our political system, in our increasingly unequal economy and in public understanding of science. Faculty are also concerned about the industry’s direct influence over research and teaching within higher education.
A wide array of U.S. schools, ranging from large state universities to prestigious elite institutions such as Harvard and MIT, have received financial support from individuals or foundations whose wealth comes from fossil fuels. Many professors and students are concerned about how these relationships constrain campus research, inquiry and conversation about responses to climate change and the need for radical change in energy systems.