Although thousands of student organizers around the country have already been mobilizing their schools for a year, the divestment movement is just beginning. At Columbia University, Barnard Columbia Divest (BCD) has taken its first strides toward making divestment from fossil fuels a reality.
Divestment, the opposite of investment, means withdrawing money from stocks from a specific industry or corporation. It has been used as a political tactic in the past -- not to impact the financial bottom line of morally bankrupt companies, but rather to revoke their social license and stigmatize their practices. In 1991, Columbia University was one of the first private institutions to divest from companies operating in South Africa during apartheid. Desmond Tutu, a famous social rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a leader in the anti-apartheid movement, recently said,
We could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.
Once again, Columbia University has the opportunity to be a leader in tackling the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. At present, people in the U.S. and around the world -- especially in the Philippines, in light of Typhoon Haiyan -- are calling upon the U.S. government and prominent institutions to boldly take a stand against the social and environmental injustices caused by climate change.
As students of an institution that prides itself in its activist history, those of us in BCD are seeking to continue the tradition of effecting change and progressing towards a just, sustainable future.
Less than a month ago, 73.7 percent of the Columbia College students who voted in Columbia's first-ever direct ballot initiative were in favor of divestment. With that in mind, two fellow BCD members and I presented our case for divestment in a meeting with the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI). The committee, whose purpose is "to advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University's endowment," was receptive to the idea of divestment from fossil fuels. Although they had already established a fossil fuel divestment subcommittee, they said our 30-minute long presentation served as a kick-off for their own research. After a productive discussion in which we addressed concerns and emphasized divestment as a means to achieving the ultimate goal of climate justice, the ACSRI agreed to do three things this semester:
1. Increase transparency by releasing their meeting minutes since September 2012, which have not been posted to their website.
2. Research Columbia's investments and provide information on its fossil fuel holdings.
3. Engage in a discussion panel that would include ACSRI members and BCD members in order to allow for student engagement with regards to the committee's plans and intentions.
We hope to receive a solid response with regards to their recommendation next semester, but in the meantime, we will continue to organize and increase our support on campus, in New York City, and nationwide. Currently, there are nearly 500 campaigns in the U.S. -- 8 schools, 20 cities, and numerous institutions have already pledged to divest. In fact, here in New York City, it is likely that the New School will divest soon.
Rose Espinola, a national organizer at the Responsible Endowments Coalition, who has been working closely with BCD members, recognizes that "the fact that Columbia University will be sharing information on their fossil fuel holdings is a victory for the national campaign, and an exciting step towards divestment at Columbia." As the movement continues to grow, students, faculty, alumni, community members, and divestment organizers look forward to seeing Columbia University take the lead in divesting for climate justice.