After Divestment, What Comes Next for College Campuses?

May 20, 2015

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation. It should therefore come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel divestment movement—the campaign to get institutions to pull their financial investments from fossil fuels and redirect that money to clean, renewable energy as a way of tackling climate change—has its roots in U.S. college campuses. With a total of $50 billion from 837 institutions and individuals divested so far, the campaign has succeeded at an unprecedented rate, growing faster than the divestment movements against both South African apartheid and tobacco.

Last fall’s stunning news that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune were pulling their philanthropic funds out of fossil fuel officially confirmed divestment’s transition from campus movement to the financial mainstream. Combined with the commitment of more than 25 universities to move beyond coal, with more to follow in the upcoming year, student leaders and activists should carefully consider their role in deciding where climate change policy goes from here. After successfully pressuring the administration of my own school, the University of Georgia, to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the campus Beyond Coal group effectively called it quits and disbanded. But as pipelines for progressive environmental solutions, campus groups should just be getting started.

The Hoover Institution published The State Clean Energy Cookbook in 2014, which includes a dozen “recipes” for cost-effective and easily supportable policies that have already been implemented in both blue and red states with strong overall results. Now we need a new wave of student activism focused on building media strategy, coalitions, and administrative and legislative relationships to take this natural next step and enter a larger policy arena.

On the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging governors and state officials to “think twice” before submitting plans for state compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan, college students should examine the role of states and regional networks in advancing clean energy policy. The work of UGA’s Beyond Coal group and others must extend beyond individual campuses, and should strongly oppose any calls to ignore federal deadlines for state carbon plans.

Regional cap and trade systems are another critical area for post-divestment work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states became the first market-based approach to reducing pollution by selling carbon credits and reinvesting the revenue into clean energy technology and consumer benefits. With a goal of reducing 10 percent of power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions across the northeastern U.S. by 2020, the RGGI instead caused emissions to drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012 and generated $102.5 million in revenue. An estimated $1.4 billion in lifetime energy bill savings are coupled with bill credits to low-income families and clean energy job training for workers. RGGI also served as the baseline policy model for California’s cap and trade system, the first state with a program of this kind.

State adoption of these programs has so far been lacking in leadership and provides an excellent road map for student involvement. I’m not calling on students alone to make this happen, though; I’m also calling on the Sierra Club,, and other environmental organizations with strong student involvement to step up to the next challenge. Let’s celebrate our victories while capturing the momentum focused on divestment and recognize that it’s time we expanded our reach.