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Brown President, Students Craft Climate Legislation

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — After a setback with its divestment campaign in October, Brown University students are moving forward on two fronts to tackle the climate-change issue.

The campus group Brown Divest Coal is still demanding that the university withdraw its endowment funds from the dirtiest U.S. coal companies. Public actions remain a regular tactic. Most recently, activists delivered a stocking filled with coal and sang divestment-themed carols outside President Christina Paxson’s house. (Watch video here.)

In late October, Brown’s divestment movement suffered its biggest defeat, when after a year of rallies and grassroots lobbying, the school’s board of trustees turned down the divestment request, a decision that was backed by Paxson.

“I believe that although the social harm is clear, this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy,” Paxson wrote in an Oct. 27 letter announcing the trustees’ decision.

Students vowed to fight on.

“If the administration has no meaningful channels to hear our voices, we will create them ourselves. This is just the beginning,” student Rachel Bishop is quoted as saying in a Nov. 11 press release from Brown Divest Coal.

What has happened since is less confrontational. After discussions with students and faculty, Paxson authorized payment for two consultants to help craft legislation addressing climate-change mitigation and adaptation in Rhode Island.

Meetings have already been held with faculty and students from the RI Student Climate Coalition and the bill’s expected sponsor, Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston. For several years, Handy has introduced legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island. None of the bills has passed. Brown professor J. Timmons Roberts, who authored legislation creating the state’s climate change commission, and students from the environmental studies department are also participating in the project.

“The legislation is currently in the form of some good ideas and some ongoing conversations,” Meg Kerr, one of the legislative consultants hired by Brown, wrote in a recent e-mail. The other consultant is Kenneth Payne, former director of the state Office of Energy Resources.

The RI Student Climate Coalition, which is organized by Brown students, is reaching out to Rhode Island student groups and local environmental groups such as Fossil Free RI and the Sierra Club to join the legislative campaign.

Less clear is whether Paxson is being a given a pass on divestment by endorsing this legislative effort.

Brown University student Trevor Culhane, a member of both the RI Student Climate Coalition and Brown Divest Coal, said the ongoing bill-crafting work doesn't allow Paxson to dodge the divestment issue.

“From the perspective of a student who has been engaged in climate issues at Brown, we need to be doing as much as possible as an institution to fight climate change, and I'm glad that Brown is supporting Rep. Handy's efforts and don't see these efforts as mutually exclusive with divestment,” Culhane said.

Bill McKibben, a national environmental leader and strong advocate for civil disobedience, has twice visited Brown University advocating for college divestment from coal. At an Oct. 2 campus debate, McKibben called Brown’s divestment plan “a moderate request,” less progressive than those adopted by other schools.

Although McKibben supports legislative efforts, he favors divestment because of the immediacy needed to curtail carbon pollution, as well as the symbolic statement it makes about the issue and a university.

“Sometimes, in the end, you have to make a decision; take a stand; do a dichotomous thing; speak up for what you actually believe,” he said.

While Brown's divestment group continues its protests on campus and with other colleges, the RI Student Climate Coalition is building a statewide collective and planning public demonstrations of its own after the General Assembly starts its next session in January.

"What has happened at Brown can be thought of as a microcosm of the state and national climate movement," Culhane said. The divestment process, he said, has advanced the climate-change conversation from a discussion to finding solutions, to acting on them. "Divestment alone isn't going to solve climate change, but, as we've seen at Brown, it builds political will and creates pathways for the solutions that can."

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