Divestment Campaigns Spread Across Massachusetts

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

Harvard University is a world leader in higher education, but sophomore Chloe Maxmin wants her college to also blaze trails battling climate change. The social studies and environmental science major helps coordinate Divest Harvard, an offshoot of a 350.org-sponsored campaign pushing colleges, local governments, nonprofits and pensions to divest from the 200 companies with a majority of the fossil-fuel reserves.

Maxmin’s group started speaking to students last August about the urgency for action on global climate change while pitching divestment as a powerful financial tool. The group then launched a successful petition drive that placed divestment on last November’s student ballot and earned 72 percent support for a non-binding referendum urging Harvard to steer its $31 billion endowment away from fossil fuels.

“We don’t want our university to be investing in companies that threaten our future,” Maxmin said. “Harvard takes a moral stand on academics and research, but its investments are still in companies that pollute without consequence and threaten the future of our civilization.”

Divest Harvard is among 20 Massachusetts colleges and universities — and 200 nationwide, including Brown University — with active divestment campaigns sponsored by 350ma.org and the Better Future Project. These grassroots environmental groups are also organizing separate campaigns targeting municipalities, nonprofits and pensions.

Shea Riester, a student divestment organizer with Better Future Project and 350.org, said that among student campaigns, Harvard’s leads the pack. Tufts University's Tufts Divest For Our Future close behind.

A group from Hampshire College in Amherst was pleasantly surprised to discover its school has no investments in fossil fuels. Most other student campaigns are still focusing on educating their community about climate change and divestment.

Students understand, Riester said, that “this really is the biggest challenge facing humanity.” They also know tackling it won’t be easy. “There hasn’t been a divestment campaign like this ever,” he said.

The Divest South Africa movement comes closest, Riester said, but that solely targeted companies doing business with the apartheid-gripped country. This campaign challenges the entire business model of major companies such as ExxonMobil, which solely depend on extracting fossil fuels and likely won’t diversify to renewable energy without good financial reason.

That is where divestment comes in. If endowments and pension plans are diverted from fossil fuels, Riester and other organizers say, corporations will reconsider their actions and be more willing to listen to the demands of environmentalists.

But first step’s first. Riester said student campaigns must continue to educate their peers, petition and push for referendums at their respective schools.

“But when the legitimate channels don’t work, nothing is happening, and the trustees and president are slow-walking students and saying they’ll consider it in a couple years, then students are forced to escalate tactics,” Riester said. That’s when groups, he said, will resort to nonviolent civil disobedience, such as sit-ins and blockages around campuses, to force the issue.

“Students’ futures are on the line and they’re not going to just take ‘No’ for an answer,” he said.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Bliss of 350.org is organizing a push for Massachusetts municipalities, pensions and nonprofits to divest. His team of volunteers has identified Cambridge, Somerville and Newburyport as progressive communities whose governing bodies might be open to the idea.

Nonprofits, especially faith-based organizations, tend to be an easier sell, Bliss said, because they “come to the conclusion that we can sacrifice some money for the good of the world.” Local and national branches of the United Church of Christ, for example, are already considering a resolution to divest of fossil fuels.

Addressing larger bodies, such as the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, will pose a more difficult challenge and require a good deal of research into who has the authority to make investment decisions and how those decisions are made.

Bliss acknowledged that small- or large-scale divestment is not, and should not, be a simple decision. “It’s good practice in managing finances to make changes in your portfolio carefully,” he said. “That also means good timing to manage the weight across your portfolio. You can’t always implement change immediately.”

That’s why patience is an activist’s best friend. So while Maxmin and her fellow Harvard students practice patience, she said they are motivated by the idea that they “are part of something that’s making history.”