“The World’s in Flames”
“If anyone wants to be on Facebook live, smile big at my right nipple because that’s where I’m putting the camera,” a student in Fossil Free Yale (FFY) announces to the group as he tucks a phone into the front pocket of his shirt.
The student prepares to live stream the protest to the FFY Facebook page, disregarding strict rules against photography in Woodbridge Hall, the building that houses the Yale President’s Office. He is one of about 20 people gathered to get the attention of Yale’s administration. Among the group are students, graduate students, and two faculty members: Mary Evelyn Tucker, a Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar at Yale, and Robert Dubrow, Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. As the group gets ready to enter the building, more students approach.
The day of the protest, January 23, marks the start of a national call for action by 350.org, and its subsidiary, the Fossil Free movement, called #Resistrejectdenial. It is 350.org‘s campaign to resist and reject the climate change denial they see in the Trump administration. Across the country, over a thousand students at schools like Boston University, the University of Denver, and Oregon State University stage walkouts in what they anticipate to be the first of many resistance movements.
This Fossil Free Yale protest is relatively small.
“It’s shopping period. We didn’t even make a Facebook event for this, we didn’t need it to be big. We just wanted to demonstrate solidarity with the national movement,” Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19, a core FFY member, tells The Politic.
The students march into Woodbridge Hall, calling out for President Peter Salovey and carrying signs with the faces of President Donald Trump’s nominees: Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, and Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pilar Montalvo, Director of Administrative Affairs at Woodbridge Hall, rushes to intercept the activists. She tells them President Salovey is in a meeting.
Unfazed, the students insist on “leaving a message” for him. “Handing over our government to the fossil fuel industry will only add gasoline to the fire,” Tucker reads aloud in the lobby. “As John Simon wrote, ordinary action is no longer sufficient to put out the flames. It’s time for Yale to take moral leadership and divest,” she continues.
After ten minutes of speeches, Montalvo ushers them out. “Thank you for stopping by,” she says. Then, after a tense pause: “and thank you for now…going.”
The students file out one by one, singing in unison.
The sea will rise
But so will we
We will fight
Just wait and see
The world’s in flames
And it’s Rex to blame
When the oil spills
Won’t be Rex it kills
Since Trump’s election victory, FFY has declared a “world in flames” scenario. The protests were made more urgent by the Yale Corporation’s upcoming meeting, when they are scheduled to vote on divestment from ExxonMobil.
Trump’s nominees were at the center of the most recent protest. FFY members said in their speeches that Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, actively spread misinformation about global warming, that Scott Pruitt, as former attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 14 times, and that Rick Perry, former Texas governor and “climate change denialist,” sits on the board of the company spearheading the Dakota Access Pipeline and once forgot, during a 2011 presidential debate, the name of the department he has been nominated to run.
Yale’s Fossil Free movement has protested the university’s ties to fossil fuel companies with mixed success since it started in the fall of 2012. In August 2014, the Yale Corporation rejected FFY’s initial proposal for divestment. But FFY has maintained an active presence on campus. In April 2015, FFY staged a protest at Woodbridge Hall, ending with 150 students in a human chain around the building and nineteen students arrested for refusing to leave the premises. A year later, the organization staged a silent protest at the keynote address of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, holding signs that said, “UN supports divestment. Universities: When will you?” That same day, the Yale Investment Office’s Chief Investment Officer David Swensen wrote a letter stating that $10 million of Yale’s endowment had been removed from three publicly traded fossil fuel companies.
That commitment made Yale one of 82 educational institutions listed on the the umbrella Fossil Free organization as having divested. But the news did not come without criticism, especially from the Fossil Free movement itself. In a post on its website in response, FFY cites the announcement as a “victory, but a limited one,” because the move “didn’t reflect any commitment to divestment on the part of the university, just the individual actions of two outside fund managers.”
“Yale’s announcement last year that it removed $10 million [from] two fossil fuel companies (thermal coal and tar sands) on purely economic grounds was an exciting step for our campaign but it was not divestment,” said Chelsea Watson ‘17, who handles communications at FFY, in an email to The Politic.
The group took up two main issues with Swensen’s announcement: First, that the university committed only to partial divestment, and second, that the decision was not based on ethical reasons.
“This partial divestment was done not because of concerns about racial justice or climate justice, but because Yale investors, as usual, are most concerned with their bottom line,” the post reads. “We remain committed to winning binding, comprehensive, and morally unambiguous divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and the Yale Corporation remains committed to being opaque, inaccessible, and putting profit over people,” it continued.
Some have questioned whether the divestment campaign’s symbolic victories are the right ones to chase.
In his 2014 article “Divestment is No Substitute for Real Action on Climate Change,” Harvard professor Robert Stavins argued that involvement in the divestment movement costs time—time that could be better used working towards more tangible goals.
“A major problem is that symbolic actions often substitute for truly effective actions by allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we are doing something meaningful about a problem when we are not,” he writes.
The global Fossil Free movement is one of the fastest growing and most influential climate activist organizations in the world. Its founder, Bill McKibben, a journalist and college professor turned activist, is used to criticism. In an interview with The Politic, he argued that the impact of the Fossil Free movement is not just symbolic.
“I think it’s eminently practical,” he said.
McKibben founded 350.org, a grassroots climate change campaign that aims to create a global movement, and organized a new divestment movement inspired by efforts to divest from South African companies to end apartheid. This time around, McKibben and fellow activists work to pressure major institutions and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Gofossilfree.org cites 649 institutions, worth $5.44 trillion, that have committed to divestment. Notable among those that have divested are the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund – the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world – the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Yale University.
Yale is one of many institutions that have only partially divested. Stanford, also on the list, has agreed to divest only from its holdings in coal. Other universities that have partially divested include Georgetown, Oxford, and Cambridge.
And other universities have refused to divest altogether.
In October 2013, Harvard University President Drew Faust rejected a proposal from members of the college’s fossil free movement to divest from fossil fuels.
“The endowment provides more than one-third of the funds we expend on University activities each year. Its strength and growth are crucial to our institutional ambitions — to the support we can offer students and faculty, to the intellectual opportunities we can provide, to the research we can advance,” the letter states.
Daniel Kammen, climate Science Envoy for the State Department and professor at UC Berkeley, says that financial concerns discourage divestment.
“Many institutions, universities and others might not want to divest because they believe it’s going to cost them money,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
In a 2014 article, Kammen and Charles Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, argue that divestment is financially wise.
“What we wanted to argue was remaining invested in fossil fuels was in fact not a very sound financial decision,” said Greene. “The business models that these companies follow are not going to pay off in the longer term.”
Kammen echoed this thought. “There are lots of things that look like a short term cost, but remove high risk items from your portfolio, and so ultimately are good things to do financially as well as socially and environmentally,” he said.
McKibben thinks that this argument is beginning to gain traction.
“Four years ago, it was a fringe idea that we had far more carbon in our reserves than we could ever burn. Now it’s the standard assessment of the financial world,” he said.
FFY has based most of its arguments for divestment on moral obligations instead of financial concerns. The Fossil Free movement states that many of its goals revolve around ending fossil fuel companies’ “social licence to operate,” an ethically rather than financially motivated goal.
Watson talked about divestment as a kind of symbolic resistance with a moral dimension.
“The power of divestment, and this goes back to apartheid and tobacco divestment campaigns as well, comes from its symbolic power,” she said. “The fossil fuel divestment movement stigmatizes the coal and petroleum industries, signaling a shift in public opinion and allowing for real political change.”
Still, Stavins argued that those involved in the divestment movement have an opportunity cost to consider.
“Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources. Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means—for some people—giving less time to another,” he wrote.
Paul Sabin, a professor of environmental history at Yale and director of undergraduate studies for environmental studies, pointed out some alternative uses of that time.
“I do wonder sometimes whether it might be more politically effective for the divestment campaign to focus on state and federal regulatory issues, and organizing people around more direct political action, because this is more of a symbolic campaign than one that leads to a lasting impact on the regulatory landscape for energy,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
Many people on the borders of Yale’s campus feel the effects of climate change directly. Experts at New York University found that of all the counties in Connecticut, New Haven County records the highest annual mortality rate from air pollution, at 54.9 deaths per year.
Sabin noted the lack of organized environmental justice work in New Haven, on issues like air pollution and beyond, and its effects on low-income communities of color.
“I think it’s interesting that there’s no real coherent environmental justice organization and movement in the state of Connecticut.”
By comparison, he said, “If you look at New York and Boston, you have grassroots organizing — communities of color and low-income groups have organized around transit justice, around clean air, shutting down power plants, opening up access to green spaces. More of a campaign for environmental equity.”
Kammen also acknowledges that the inequity in focus of climate change movements is a problem, but does not think it has to be.
“[The fact that] the benefits of clean energy go first to the rich and later to the poor is a real problem. It’s one of the reasons why a community like New Haven — or Yale in New Haven, that wants to both address climate change and wants to address social inequality, in my view and in the view of the scientific community, should see this as a really key overlap,” he said.
In her response to the Harvard Fossil Free group, President Faust levelled a similar criticism at the divestment movement more broadly.
“Because I am deeply concerned about climate change, I also feel compelled to ask whether a focus on divestment does not in fact distract us from more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities,” she said.
“I guess I find that to be a really frustrating argument,” said Watson in response to this notion. “Of course FFY takes a lot of time, but that’s because it takes a lot of time and energy to make change.”
Likewise, Calnek-Sugin thinks the campaigns for divestment and environmental justice don’t need to be separated.
“I would say that fighting for fossil fuel divestment is the same as fighting for better air quality — that’s the whole point, right?” she said.
“I spend most of my free time working on mitigating the cause and effects of climate change, and out of the many different routes I’ve taken, organizing through Fossil Free Yale has felt like the most important thing I can do right now to leverage my power and privilege as a Yale student,” Watson said.
McKibben also defended the divestment movement.
“I’ve noticed that people who fight for divestment also have time and energy to fight for plenty of other things. I’ve actually never met someone who said ‘I used the time I saved not fighting for divestment to go shut down a pipeline.’ I think it’s an entirely bogus argument used by the kind of weaselly people who never actually want to do very much,” he said.
In an interview with The Politic, Elias Estabrook ‘16, a former FFY organizer and a current environmental organizer in New Haven, acknowledged the possible benefits of focusing on other environmental problems besides divestment. “There are certainly times where I thought about, you know, could I be out lobbying for carbon tax regulation?” he admitted.
But Estabrook ultimately believes divestment is worthwhile.
“I really do think it’s a strategic tactic for students to be using their role, their position as constituents of the university, members of the Yale community, to put pressure on Yale as an investor to take action,” he said.
Chris Schweitzer works with the New Haven Healthy City/Healthy Climate Challenge and previously led the New Environmental Justice Network.
“Divestment at this point in 2016 or 2017…it’s a great question whether or not that’s the best path to be on. But for me, almost anything happening to push people on climate change is a good thing,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
He holds that the divestment movement might be the most useful and powerful political tool Yale students have, even if divestment is not the ultimate goal.
“When you’re organizing, you don’t necessarily pick a target that’s the be-all end-all, you do it as a step towards a greater goal,” he said.
“I just think that oftentimes it seems like social, political, environmental problems of the world are so immense that there’s nothing that we can possibly do,” Calnek-Sugin said. “When you’re like ‘how do we address the massive issue of climate change?’ it’s really useful to feel like you’re working towards a defined goal.”
“For the first time there is a global student movement that is matching the scale of the problem,” she said.
“There’s always this thing about critiquing groups doing organizing and should they be doing something better,” Schweitzer said. Nevertheless, he continued, “Organizations and people often make choices based not on what’s most effective but based on what’s doable and what’s possible.”
Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change under the Obama administration and a negotiator of the Paris Climate Accords, agreed.
“Insofar as college campuses and students on college campuses are active or are getting active or get more active on the imperative of dealing with climate change and reducing carbon emissions, I think that’s great, and I think that’s an important thing,” he said. “The biggest variable for the capacity of the country and the world to deal successfully on climate change in my judgement is politics.”
“Because there’s a huge amount that’s needed in terms of innovation, there’s a huge amount that’s needed in terms of policy, there’s a huge amount that’s needed in terms of financing, and all of those things will happen. They’ll happen. If the political will is there,” he continued.
On Tuesday January 24, four days into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing construction on the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines to continue. The Associated Press reported that Trump also ordered a “temporary media blackout” at the EPA and a halt on all its new contracts and grants.
But activists still see a path forward for climate change action under a Trump administration.
“I mean I’m hopeful,” said Schweitzer. “There’s a lot to be done. And I mean, we gotta do it, we’ve just got to. Right? There’s not an option.”