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August 25, 2014 / Green America

GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: Fossil Free Stanford

As students start getting ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from August 14th through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

Stanford students unite to "X out" the fossil fuel industry. Photo by Kira Mineheart

Stanford students unite to “X out” the fossil fuel industry. (Photo by Kira Mineheart)

On May 6, 2014, Stanford University became one of the first schools to recognize the importance of divesting its endowment from companies whose practices threaten students’ futures. Fossil Free Stanford (FFS), one of many student-run divestment groups in the country, was the catalyst behind its school’s removal of funds from coal mining companies from the endowment portfolio.

“I think a lot of the frustration with activism around climate change…is that you can make small-scale changes, but they aren’t really questioning the structures that got us into this,” says sophomore Mikaela Osler, FFS Student Outreach Coordinator. “[Divestment] is a symbolic statement saying that Stanford no longer supports [the fossil-fuel] business model.”

FFS was inspired by a talk, titled “Do the Math,” that author Bill McKibben, founder of the climate nonprofit 350.org, delivered on Stanford’s campus in November of 2012. To avoid a dangerous 2°C rise in the average global surface temperature, McKibben stated that 80 percent of carbon reserves should remain in the ground. Also, many scientists agree that atmospheric carbon—which now exceeds 400 parts per million (ppm)—should stabilize at 350 ppm for the world to avoid the worst effects of global climate change. Through his Fossil-Free Divestment campaign—which Green America supports and covered in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of the Green American magazine—McKibben asks people and organizations, primarily colleges and universities, to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies in order to financially and socially pressure these companies to replace dirty energy sources with renewables.

“Fossil fuel companies are big,” says junior Michael Peñuelas, a Lead Student Organizer of FFS. “[The Fossil-Fuel Divestment movement is] a way to magnify our individual voices with an institution as a megaphone.”

Last year, FFS submitted a request for review to the university’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensure (APIRL), a group of faculty, alumni, and students that helps ensure that Stanford’s endowment fund does not go into socially and environmentally detrimental investments.

FFS’s undergraduates cooperated with graduate students, alumni, and faculty to drum up support for their cause. The group pushed the undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council to pass resolutions in support of fossil-fuel divestment, they obtained over 400 supportive letters from alumni, and they drafted a letter that 170 fully tenured faculty members signed. FFS members also knocked on students’ doors, tabled, and organized rallies to increase students’ support for divestment. In Stanford’s spring elections, over 75 percent of undergraduate students voted in favor of divestment from fossil fuel companies.

“It was a big effort to get all the demographics in line,” says Peñuelas. “It’s very likely that [the administration] would never have considered divestment without student pressure.”

While the group was building general support for divestment, APIRL researched the environmental and social impacts of fossil fuels. In spring of 2014, APIRL concluded that climate change would cause “substantial social injury.” Acting on APIRL’s recommendation, Stanford’s Board of Trustees voted to divest its $18.7 billion endowment from 100 coal mining companies. FFS had originally wanted the university to divest from the 100 coal companies and the 100 oil and natural gas companies that own the largest carbon reserves.

“[Stanford] chose half of the list that we gave them, which we were pretty excited about and proud of Stanford for doing, but…in the long term we are absolutely pushing for full divestment,” says Peñuelas.

Peñuelas also acknowledged that FFS conducted its campaign in a relatively favorable and receptive environment. Due to the existence of APIRL, the students faced an open dialogue from the administration. Also, as a school on the West Coast, Stanford does not rely on coal to power its campus or to provide jobs in the local community. Students at most other schools have not been as fortunate in their crusades for divestment—at American University and Harvard University, some were even arrested. Peñuelas believes that Stanford’s decision will move the divestment campaign forward, both in other colleges and for the public as a whole.

“We have dozens of articles, dozens of radio shows, [and] plenty of TV coverage of this,” says Peñuelas. “The direct proximate impact of Stanford’s coal divestment is not to end the coal industry, but it’s to cause a giant conversation, which it kick-started.”

The group plans to formally request that APIRL conduct a review of oil and natural gas companies in the coming months.

Sari Amiel

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