University News

McKibben urges divest coal campaign to stay strong

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writer and professor Bill McKibben P’16 presented strong arguments for pressuring the University to divest from major coal companies during the 15th stop of his “Do the Math” tour Monday night. Professors, students and community members filled Salomon 001 as McKibben highlighted the realities of climate change and urged his audience to take action to combat it. 

“We’re past the light bulb-changing moment,” he said. “As of tonight, we’re going after the fossil fuel industry.” 

The earth’s temperature has already risen by one degree Celsius, which has caused half of the Arctic polar ice caps to melt, McKibben said, adding that a maximum two-degree increase remains before a climatological disaster. “If one degree melts the Arctic, we really shouldn’t be finding out what two degrees does,” he said.  

Climate change affects everyone, McKibben said, especially those who have no control over it. In last month’s Hurricane Sandy, “more people died … in Haiti than in New York,” he said – though “there’s nothing people in Haiti can do to solve this problem.” Impoverished Haitians have no fossil fuel emissions to reduce, and they have no say in the financial support University endowments provide for the fossil fuel industry, he said.  

Fossil fuel companies currently have the resources to burn five times the amount of fossil fuels that scientists say should not be exceeded in order to stay below a two-degree Celsius increase, McKibben said. “The numbers show that the fossil fuel industry has become a rogue force,” he added. 

McKibben also targeted the University’s claims of sustainability, saying, “If you’re going to green the campus, there is no logical reason you would not green the portfolio at exactly the same time.” 

The new student group Brown Divest Coal – which emerged this summer along with several other coal-divestment student groups across the nation – invited McKibben to campus. “We want Brown to be a leader in coal divestment,” said Sonya Gurwitt ’16, a member of the group.

Divest Coal coordinator Rebecca Rast ‘13.5 said she is disappointed that the University has yet to act upon these recommendations, especially following Unity College of Main’s Nov. 12 pledge to divest from coal, oil and gas companies. Coal divestment is “about health, it’s about mitigating climate change, and it’s about making (people) aware the power of coal in our communities,” she said. A Harvard representative told the Harvard Crimson earlier this week that it would not consider divestment. 

The University may be reluctant to divest from coal because energy companies can be a major endowment source for universities, said Dawn King, visiting assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, though she predicted that the coal industry will likely no longer be viable within the next 20 years. But King cautioned that “divesting from coal-fired power plants is just a teeny-tiny baby step to addressing global warming” – an issue with which America will be grappling for the next half century, she said. 

McKibben said the battle to convince the University to divest will not be an easy feat. 

“It’s going to be a very hard fight,” he said. “We’re going to be asking people to do things that are hard for them to do, and we’re going to be putting them on the spot.” 

Still, McKibben emphasized that the fight for coal divestment is possible. Ultimately, students are asking the University to “put its money where its mouth is,” McKibben said. “When they say ‘no,’ you’re going to have to steel yourselves to say ‘yes.'”

  • B'12

    The Corporation needs to live up to the ideals espoused by the University and divest immediately.

  • B'16

    It’s time for Brown to DIVEST! If you’re a student, alumni, or prof, sign the petition at:

  • Reality Check

    Considering the 1,200 coal plants currently in the planning stages in 59 countries like India and China- not known for their environmental regulations, in contrast to the restrictions currently in place in the US- what good does Brown putting working-class Americans out of work accomplish? I mean, besides feeling better about ourselves?

  • Anonymous

    it’s true that this movement must be a global one, but Brown and other universities’ divestment from coal is not only a direct attack on the coal industry here, but an important and powerful message that we cannot support and profit off of an industry that endangers our environment and our wellbeing.
    additionally, if you look into the literature, you’ll find that the coal industry is already an economically unsound investment–the cost of extraction is becoming increasingly expensive and mechanized, and more than half of the coal factories in the states are old and inefficient, requiring costly retrofits to function.
    most importantly are the health impacts of the coal industry in the US, where coal factories cause thousands of cases of asthma attacks, bronchitis, and deaths yearly. these coal factories are almost always in low-income areas, where people do not have the privilege to be in a position where their voice is powerful and easily heard. this is why brown, and other universities like brown, must divest.
    the feeling of learned helplessness is understandable, especially because, as you mention, the coal industry is alive and well globally, but divestment is a crucial step that places pressure on the coal industries and governments to enact change.
    (in the divestment from south african apartheid campaign in the 80s, mandela said that the divestment of the UC system from apartheid directly contributed to the abolishment of the white minority rule.)

    there is hope!

    come out to the rally, thursday @ noon in the main green to show president paxson your support in divesting from the top 15 filthiest coal companies!