How Student Movements Helped Normalize Divestiture

January 30, 2020

The Great Democracy Initiative’s (GDI) latest report on how Dodd-Frank regulatory powers could be used to curb carbon financing offers an innovative approach to addressing the climate crisis. For the Roosevelt Network, it also reminds us that this wouldn’t be possible without the groundwork of youth-led divestiture movements that have increasingly gained momentum in recent years.

Young people have always been at the forefront of the climate movement. From the students who filed a 2015 suit against the US government, arguing that it had “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property,” to Greta Thunberg and the teens who spearheaded the Youth Climate Strikes, young people have tested the boundaries of “realistic” climate action and gone beyond it—fighting for bold solutions.

Though they’ve always kept the global scale of the climate crisis top of mind, these young leaders are building new momentum with decentralized initiatives in areas of maximum agency: namely, at the campus and local levels.

Equipped with research and clear policy recommendations, students especially have been examining the financialization of their schools and finding that they’re being managed like entities whose main purpose is to produce profit—to the benefit of fossil fuel and other carbon-emitting companies. (And not just carbon-related industries: Roosevelt Network @ Columbia students, for example, led the successful divestment campaign “Barnard no Aramark,” effectively forcing the administration to drop the food service giant under allegations of misconduct and investments in private prisons.)

And now, they’re demanding concrete action.

After years of activism, several institutions are commiting to divest from mass carbon emitters, including Stanford, the University of Maine, and the University of California system—the latter of which made the largest public university divestment commitment ever last year.

Some financial institutions seem to be moving in the right direction, too. BlackRock’s announcement to divest from thermal coal, for example, acknowledges that climate change is a real risk not only for the environment but also for investors who think carbon emissions are still a winning bet. As American environmentalist Bill McKibben put it, that development is “seismic.”

Not everyone is on the same page, though. As a 2019 report on banking and climate change revealed, the largest banks in the world have actually been expanding the financing of fossil fuel projects over the last several years.

On the campus level, many schools have neither divested nor provided the transparency for students to examine their finances. Moreover, some of the schools with the largest endowments have resisted efforts to divest—in some cases, with arrest.

Thankfully, policymakers of the future—millenials and Gen Zs—know better. As BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote in his divestiture notice to CEOs, “Young people have been at the forefront of calling on institutions—including BlackRock—to address the new challenges associated with climate change. They are asking more of companies and of governments, in both transparency and in action. And as trillions of dollars shift to millennials over the next few decades, as they become CEOs and CIOs, as they become the policymakers and heads of state, they will further reshape the world’s approach to sustainability.”

As Roosevelters know well, who writes the rules matters; in the case of divestiture, students have taken the lead in rewriting them. While we find avenues for action today—such as the Dodd-Frank approach proposed by Graham Steele—students show us the possibilities of tomorrow. Luckily for the planet, they’re ready.