University News

Group rallies to show support for coal divestment

By
Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2012

Students with the Brown Divest Coal Campaign called upon President Christina Paxson to divest the University from its alleged coal and fossil fuel investments at a rally outside University Hall Thursday.

About 145 students attended the rally, said Divest Coal coordinator Rebecca Rast ‘13.5. Students stomped and chanted such slogans as “Brown take action! Stop extraction!” and “What’s our goal? Divest coal!” They also waved cardboard signs that read “Stop burning our future” and “dive$t coal.” A few even braved the cold in white T-shirts with the rectangular black Divest Coal logo.

Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Beppie Huidekoper previously told The Herald she was unsure whether the University actually had any investments in the 15 companies. 

The goal of the rally was “to demonstrate to President Paxson the depth of student support” for the University’s divestment from the 15 highest-polluting coal companies in the nation, said Emily Kirkland ’13. “Paxson has been very receptive when we met with her in the past,” she added.

“We’re here to show that there is deep student support for divesting from coal and that (Paxson) can make the right choice and make Brown a leader in the fight against climate change,” said Jordan Schulz ’16. 

To formally call for divestment, Paxson would have to refer to the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, which would make a recommendation to her and to the Corporation as to whether the University should divest.

The rally came three days after environmentalist Bill McKibben P’16 encouraged the Divest Coal Campaign to keep fighting in a speech on campus Monday night. 

Schulz built off McKibben’s momentum in her welcoming address at the rally. “At the event we saw a picture of kids from Haiti holding signs that said, ‘Your actions affect me.’ We’re here today to tell President Paxson that our actions affect not only children in Haiti, but people young and old, in every part of the world, including Providence,” she said.

Students signed a card that read, “You can do it, President Paxson. Divest from coal,” in addition to the Brown Divest Coal Campaign’s petition, which had over 1,900 signatures at the start of the rally, Kirkland said. Students also tied blue ribbons representing clean water and air to a University Hall banister. 

The rally was a “resounding success,” said Kristy Choi ’15, who led many of the chants. “Our goal for this event was visibility. … We were definitely seen and heard,” she said, adding that this event marked the first physical gathering for the campaign. 

“The energy in this space was unreal,” Choi added. “Just to hear people shout our message in unison was inspiring. I’m excited. Victory is so close.”

  • Sarah E.

    Fantastic article, Maxine! This is a fascinating issue and it’s interesting to see how it is being approached by students and the administration at Brown.

  • E. M.

    I’m most interested in how the administration seems to be returning to one line: that they’re unsure if the University’s investments lie in these 15 coal companies. This entirely avoids the issue that motivates the campaign: the University should ensure it’s not investing in companies whose practices are socially and environmentally destructive. If the administration calls for an examination and finds that there are, in fact, no investments in these companies, a simple statement that it is not currently invested and will not invest in them would satisfy the campaign inasmuch as it sets an example for other universities.

  • C '13

    This strikes me more “anti-coal, anti business, anti- etc.” than trying to fix anything. Not to mention, limiting the kinds of investments Brown can make really hurts its ability to make the money needed to build nice buildings, hire superlative staff, and keep tuition from exponentially growing.

    Most, if not all companies that mine coal actually have a larger portion of operations devoted to mine precious metals and deal in commodities–look at Glencore-Xstrata. Mining coal isn’t as profitable any more, but the expertise carries over to a wide array of other resource extraction activities. I agree that we should push for some responsible investments and use the institutional investor status of Brown’s endowment to apply pressures on management where fit. However, this particular divestment movement doesn’t solve any issues. By divesting from a company, you have NO rights to that company and NO say on what it can and cannot do. There is a whole industry devoted to shareholder activism because it works where divestment does not. The reality is that we need energy to enjoy the luxuries we’ve come accustomed to and don’t forget, run the labs and experiments that can help solve society’s problems today. A constructive course of action would be to buy more shares in a particular company and ensure that the process by which resources are extracted and utilized are to the highest standards possible. It’s a delusion to think that avoiding shares of “dirty energy” companies actually puts any dent in their share prices or changes what happens. Divestment is silence and in doing so, we become bystanders.

    As Economics teaches us from day one, it’s all about tradeoffs–what do you prefer? Nice things or a bad strategy to corporate governance?

  • Emily Kirkland (Economics and Environmental Studies '13)

    To C’13 —
    This is a really important point. I believe in the power of shareholder activism, and I think that it has been a great force for change in the past. That said, shareholder activism simply isn’t a option in this case. These companies are committed to their environmentally destructive business model; they’ve been willing to spend millions on lobbying and advertisements to defend it. The suggestions of a few shareholders aren’t going to make a meaningful difference.
    Divestment is the opposite of silence. Divestment sends a strong public message that profiting from climate change, air pollution, and mountaintop removal is not morally acceptable. Divestment is a wake-up call for legislators, institutional investors, business leaders and the general public. We know that it has worked in the past — look at the example of apartheid-era South Africa. And we know that it can work again. We’re not alone, either; Brown Divest Coal is part of a national movement of fossil fuel divestment campaigns underway on more than 140 campuses this fall.
    I’m always happy to discuss more — feel free to shoot me an email! I’m sure the same goes for other members of the campaign.

  • Anonymous

    I think South Africa also faced massive trade restrictions. They were forced to run their cars on liquified natural gas due to oil embargoes. This gave rise to companies like Sasol. Doesn’t seem like a fair comparison do to the large contextual differences. These companies will continue as before and lobby. I also don’t see the link between the divestment and change in industry regulations. Also with the market as it is, commodities command more sway. I hope the end goal is achieved, but I have doubts in the methods.

  • Anonymous

    I was at the rally, and I just wanted to say it was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen at Brown so far! Amazing to have 150 students come out to show the administration how much they believe in this issue. Thank you Brown Divest Coal for keeping our university honest!

  • Anonymous

    First I want to say how pro-divestment from coal I am. However, I wonder why the BDH criticizes students who want to divest from companies profiting off of the israeli occupation as hypocritical and not this!? Talk about having a double standard. The truth, BDH, is that people can only focus their energies into so many things, and focusing on divestment from one unjust line of investment is always a step towards justice overall. ESPECIALLY when they’re all related to the biases, lobbies, and actions of our US government.