By Victor Menotti
At a time when most Americans agree that the country has too...
by Graham Provost
As a veteran of the movement to combat climate change, I have been conditioned to expect disappointment. So when, as administration coordinator for Fossil Free Stanford, I was called into the office of the senior assistant to the Stanford University president in early May, I approached the meeting with apprehension.
There were good reasons for my concern. That very morning, Harvard had arrested a student demanding an open dialogue on fossil fuel divestment. Last fall, Brown University flatly refused student calls to sever ties with thirteen of the dirtiest coal companies. Efforts to implement climate policies at a national and international level had fared no better.
Together with three other Fossil Free Stanford organizers, I had strategized for hours about how to respond to the anticipated excuses and delays. But rather than facing hostility when we met the senior assistant, he told us that Stanford was preparing to announce its divestment from the coal industry. The Stanford Board of Trustees had heeded our calls for action, accelerated its review process, and was nearing a decisive vote. I was shocked. Eighteen months of dedication had actually achieved results.
Our group, Fossil Free Stanford, was founded in November of 2012 as part of a national and international campaign calling on universities and other institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry. The movement was inspired by Bill McKibben’s incisive article in Rolling Stone, which provided a call to action and highlighted the terrifying fact that 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to slow climate change to a rate that avoids the most catastrophic consequences. The movement for divestment gave my generation, for the first time, a tangible way to take action against climate change. Within months, divestment campaigns had sprung up at more than 300 colleges across the country.
Stanford’s campaign began with a small group of passionate students and a goal of compelling our university to spear-head a global movement. Led by Sophie Harrison, a remarkable freshman, we researched Stanford’s official policies for evaluating divestment. Our first concrete step was to submit a request for review to the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, a body created during the apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s to advise the board of trustees.
As we navigated the bureaucratic process, momentum toward divestment continued to build within the student body. We created a student petition and went door to door, asking for signatures. The petition allowed us not only to demonstrate student support, but also to engage with and educate our peers. We explained that while divestment would have little direct impact on the share prices of fossil fuel companies, it could fundamentally shift the public and political dialogue on climate change. By divesting, we would begin to align our investments with our values, send the powerful and unequivocal message that climate change is a profoundly moral issue, and make clear to policymakers that doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry is no longer acceptable.
While our contact with the advisory panel continued, the administration held its cards close, and we were uncertain of the precise timeline for its decision-making process. In the fall of 2013, we were given less than one week’s notice that we would have the opportunity to deliver our case to the full advisory panel. Some of the Fossil Free organizers had already been carving twenty hours per week out of their demanding academic workloads, but now we had to put our already sleep-deprived team to the test.
Members of the team organized our largest rally to date, which was featured on the front page of the Stanford Daily and sent a strong message of student support. Meanwhile, I spearheaded the effort to craft a comprehensive report detailing the scientific, ethical, and economic underpinnings of our request. Sophie played a crucial role in all aspects of our strategy, writing sections of the report, delivering a rousing speech at the rally, and organizing our formal presentation to the advisory panel.
This presentation marked the start of Stanford’s official review process, and we knew that this was the time to demonstrate support from all segments of the Stanford community. We launched an alumni campaign and a faculty campaign, in addition to our continued engagement with the administration
At its core though, Fossil Free remained a student-driven movement. As the year progressed, our core team expanded and the movement’s emblematic orange-felt squares began to appear all across campus. Orange, rather than green, was chosen as the color of the national divestment movement because climate change isn’t merely an environmental issue.
Continuing to burn fossil fuels may eliminate coral reefs and cause a mass extinction of species, but the devastation won’t be limited to natural systems. Climate change will destroy the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, particularly in poor and marginalized communities. Those who have done the least to cause the problem are the most likely to be displaced by rising seas, battered by severe storms, or uprooted by drought and famine.
This moral argument—that climate change is a matter of social and environmental justice—resonated with the Stanford community.
Our efforts to expand support among the student body culminated in Divestment Week at the start of this Spring Quarter. It was the largest and most exhausting week of climate action that Stanford has ever seen. It featured thousands of fliers posted across campus, daily rallies, and dozens of group coffee dates to educate potential supporters. It concluded with an undergraduate student referendum that demonstrated an overwhelming 78 percent support for divestment.
All of our efforts were designed to build toward the Stanford Board of Trustees meeting in June. That is why in early May, sitting in the office of the president’s assistant, I was not expecting to hear the words: “Stanford is divesting.” But once I had recovered from the initial shock of that pronouncement, my mind began to race forward.
Stanford is a globally renowned institution, and its decision to join the eleven small colleges that have already made a commitment to divest lends tremendous momentum to the movement. What the planet needs is for other institutions to follow Stanford’s lead.
Universities and churches, local governments and charities, foundations and civic organizations now have a historic opportunity. By divesting from fossil fuels, each institution can demonstrate that funding catastrophic climate change is inconsistent with its values and mission, and together these institutions can make a collective moral statement that cannot be ignored.
So while Stanford’s decision to divest is a momentous victory for my generation, it marks not the end of our campaign, but a continuing call to action. The history of national and global efforts to combat climate change provides many reasons to be cynical, but for the first time, a powerful movement is rising to challenge the status quo.
Working with Fossil Free Stanford for the past year and a half has rekindled my hope for a sustainable future. It has also convinced me that a group of thoughtful and committed citizens really can change the world.
Graham Provost completed his Master of Science degree in Atmosphere/Energy Engineering at Stanford University in June. He plans to remain involved with Fossil Free Stanford as an alumnus and to continue to confront what he has called “the greatest moral challenge of our time.”