If I learned one thing from my undergraduate years at Lehigh University, it’s that any lasting progress for a just world happens through wielding our collective power, coming together across our differences, and challenging institutional and systemic status quo. I didn’t necessarily learn this sitting in lecture halls, but rather organizing both on-campus and in the broader Bethlehem community, awakening to this theory of change.
At the intersections of economic, racial, and climate justice, colleges and universities have a key role in acting on the compounding crises of our time, living into stated values through action, and preparing young people for a livable future where all of us can thrive.
At the root of so many of these injustices are fossil fuel corporations. Even now, with over 80% of the world’s population experiencing extreme weather linked to climate chaos, fossil fuel executives are doubling down on extracting, burning, and transporting dirty energy.
In fact, companies like Exxon knew about the impact of fossil fuel use propelling our home planet into instability and climate chaos. Instead of heeding the findings of their own scientists and warning the rest of us, Exxon executives went on a decades-long and ongoing campaign of climate denial, delay, and deceit.
This is where our collective power to hold them accountable and fight for another possible world comes in.
With inspiration from the 1970s South Africa apartheid divestment movement, one tactic in the toolbox of climate action is fossil fuel divestment. Fossil fuel divestment is an effective way for institutions to combat climate change by eliminating investments in fossil fuels. College endowments wield billions of dollars in investments and holdings — assets intended to move on the long-term horizon — and can erode the fossil fuel industry’s license to pollute by phasing out these toxic holdings.
Not only is fossil fuel divestment a tangible way for these institutions to act on their missions and values, it’s also tangible action that anyone, anywhere can take. While the movement started as a moral campaign on a handful of college campuses across the U.S., it’s now a mainstream, global, and responsible financial strategy.
To date, over 1,550 institutions with more than $40 trillion in assets have committed to some level of divestment. For perspective, $40 trillion would cover all 2022 climate damages 242 times over — or finance 7,000 billionaire space joyrides.
Commitments include esteemed universities such as Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. In 2022, the United Kingdom surpassed the major milestone of 100 universities committed to fossil fuel divestment.
Even in the face of inflation, recession, and volatile geopolitics with the war in Ukraine, research affirms that the financial case for fossil fuel divestment is stronger than ever. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released its latest analysis in October, titled “Two economies collide: Competition, conflict, cooperation and the financial case for fossil fuel divestment.” as an update to its 2018 report. The findings are clear: “the coal, oil, and gas sectors have lost their financial rationale.”
The writing has been on the wall for decades: the fossil fuel industry is failing structurally, not to mention hell-bent on planetary destruction. Fossil fuel divestment is a powerful tool for colleges and universities to live their stated values and prove to current and future students, as well as alumni and the broader community, that they are serious about ushering in a livable planet for future generations.
Cutting ties with fossil fuel corporations is a winning strategy for higher education, as more than ever, people of all ages are making life decisions based on institutional values: looking to attend colleges with strong climate track-records, and even not wanting to work for fossil fuel companies or the banks financing them.
As stated in BestColleges, “the pressure to utilize renewable energy and sustainable practices instead of fossil fuel is only growing in the United States — and much of that pressure is coming from college students. Higher education institutions are responding by investigating their investments and divesting from fossil fuel companies.…”
Another tool for institutions to live their climate commitments is to reject donations from Big Oil. Don’t let Chevron sponsor your new science lab; don’t let Shell pay for a curriculum. This is gaining traction around the world. Fossil Free Research is a movement to end the toxic influence of fossil fuel money on climate change-related research in universities. It is coordinated by international student divestment and climate justice activists with the support of over 800 academics, climate experts, and university members.
A third tool is to ban fossil corporations from recruiting students. Fossil Free Careers, a project led by activist group People and Planet, demands that higher ed institutions prevent companies in the “oil, gas, and mining industries” from attending careers fairs or listing their vacancies on career websites. Birkbeck, University of London, is named by the group as its “first campaign win.”
The toolbox is full of options for colleges and universities, and failing to choose any tool or take any action is also a choice. These are the decisions that impact student recruitment, reputation, and alumni relations alike. Higher ed cutting ties with fossil fuels is a winning strategy for people and the planet alike.
Lindsay Meiman (she/her) is a writer, activist, and climate communicator. She graduated from Lehigh University in 2014, where she studied Economics and Environmental Studies. Lindsay interned with the Alliance to pass the Bethlehem Area School District’s first-ever Climate and Sustainability Commitment and currently serves as the Media Director for Stand.earth’s Climate Finance Program, after seven years on 350.org’s Global Communications Team. Lindsay works on Indigenous Munsee Lenape land (New York City) where she lives with her partner Blake and dog Penny.
- SLV 2023 Table of Contents
- Voices of the Valley – Alphabetic List of Authors
- Sustainable Lehigh Valley booklet