The facts are grim and too familiar. Our planet is warming as a result of human activity. Fossil fuels like oil, gas and, above all, coal are to blame. Species are going extinct, coral reefs are disappearing and hundreds of millions of people are being driven into poverty by increasing occurrences of droughts, floods, storms and heat waves.
Faced with these difficult realities and the immense political power of the fossil fuel industry, most politicians have given up. They’ve turned a blind eye to the consequences of burning fossil fuels, especially coal, which is the single largest source of global carbon dioxide emissions.
In addition to contributing to climate change, coal-fired power plants also spew pollution that exacerbates asthma and heart disease, causing 13,000 preventable deaths each year. Coal mining has devastating local impacts. People living near mountaintop removal coal mines are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer and 42 percent more likely to be born with birth defects than other people in Appalachia. But political leaders have dug in their heels to defend coal. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill just last week that deregulated significant portions of the coal industry.
Brown Divest Coal is a brand-new student group that refuses to accept this status quo. We know that Americans must stand up to the fossil fuel industry before it’s too late. And we can start right here at Brown by divesting our endowment from the 15 coal companies with the worst environmental and social records, what we call the “Filthy Fifteen.”
These companies are truly the worst of the worst. Dominion, a coal-burning utility, operated a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tenn. that flooded in 2008, engulfing the town in more than a billion gallons of toxic ash. Massey Energy prioritized profits over peoples’ health and safety at its Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to a disaster in April 2010 that killed 29 miners. The list goes on and on.
Divesting from these companies would send a strong signal to the companies, legislators and the general public that our university wants nothing to do with this industry’s record of wanton destruction.
The Brown administration has already made impressive commitments to sustainability. We’ve worked hard to reduce our carbon footprint and meet the goals set out in the Brown is Green initiative. This is vital work, and we applaud Brown’s progress thus far. But we also know that it isn’t enough. As long as we remain invested in the coal industry, Brown will continue to profit from one of the most destructive industries in the world.
Divesting from the coal industry allows Brown students, faculty and staff to know that we’re at an institution that lives up its values. Equally important, public divestment at Brown could have a real and immediate impact across the country.
There are more than a dozen campuses right now where students are working on similar divestment campaigns, including peer institutions like Yale, Harvard and Swarthmore College. But given Brown’s incredibly active and progressive student body, we think Brown could be the first to publicly divest.
In just the first three weeks of our campaign, we’ve already seen an awe-inspiring amount of student support, with more than 1,200 petitions signed and more than 60 active volunteers. A public statement from Brown could set off a whole series of divestments all across the United States.
Divestment shows the coal industry that profiting from the planet’s destruction is not a sound business strategy. By making it clear that coal is a risky investment, we can persuade banks and other big investors to stop providing the financial backing that coal companies need. What’s more, a public divestment at Brown would garner media attention across the country. By showing the depth of support for action against coal companies, this could encourage legislators to regulate the industry more strictly.
Politicians have ignored the health and environmental consequences of coal mining and have refused to nurture alternative economic possibilities in Appalachian communities. Divestment serves as a wake-up call. That’s why members of these communities have asked for support in their struggle against Big Coal.
Such campaigns have worked in the past, as in the 1980s when divestment campaigns on college campuses helped turn the tide against apartheid. These campaigns made it morally unacceptable to own stock in companies that did business with the South African government, and they ultimately played a large role in bringing down the regime.
In our classes, we’re informed of injustices and equipped with the skills necessary to tackle them. But writing papers and completing lab reports only go so far. The Brown Divest Coal Campaign is a movement of students taking our voice beyond the seminar room and the lecture hall, asking our school to lead the way towards a cleaner and more equitable future.
The Brown Divest Coal Campaign is just a bunch of crazy weirdos who really think Brown students can make a difference.