Could Stephen Colbert convince Northwestern to divest its holdings in coal companies? It was an idea bounced around at Fossil Free NU’s teach-in Monday night, when student leaders from the divestment campaign, formerly known as Divest NU, presented a small audience with the basics of the science and economics behind climate change.
“We have some pretty high up alumni, and we like to brag about that,” said Weinberg sophomore Christina Cilento. “I’d really love to say that they got involved and came to campus. Harvard’s alumni have done that – Natalie Portman is in solidarity with Harvard students.”
Approximately $17 million of Northwestern’s nearly $10 billion endowment fund is invested in coal companies, the primary target of Fossil Free NU’s campaign, according to Medill sophomore Scott Brown. That amounts to less than 1 percent of the university’s funds, meaning that divesting from those companies wouldn’t make much of an impact on the endowment.
“Northwestern really has the potential to divest its funds and not hurt our scholarships or hurt our endowment, but still make a statement that we don’t support these companies,” Brown said.
He presented data showing that divesting from coal stocks would make economic sense, since the price of stocks in coal companies has fallen in recent years. Northwestern has, in fact, most likely lost money by holding on to its investments in coal companies. An impending “Carbon Bubble” could also negatively impact coal’s profitability. Essentially, the entire industry’s assets in coal (and other fossil fuels) would become worthless if and when the risk of burning such fuels is deemed higher than any potential benefit.
“What does the administration say when you point that out?” asked an attendee. “No political statement attached, what do they say?”
Fossil Free NU has met with members of the University’s investment committee, as well as Chief Investment Officer Will McLean. “They’re afraid that if they sell it, [the stocks] will bounce back and Northwestern will look stupid,” Brown responded.
Fossil Free NU leaders also brought up the larger political and social justice implications of climate change during the teach-in, noting that the adverse effects will mostly be seen in third-world countries that have contributed the least to climate change. For example, the Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, is already seeing the effects of rising sea levels and, as a result, environmental refugees. On the political front, Weinberg sophomore Alexander Kirschner noted that the Koch brothers, who made their billion-dollar fortunes in part from the fossil fuel industry, have pledged to spend close to $900 million in the 2016 elections.
“You can bet a lot of that money will be funding people who deny climate science,” he said.
The opinions of billionaires’ aside, the Northwestern student body has largely been receptive towards the idea of divesting. In March, 75 percent of the student body supported the initiative in a referendum. Yet, the organizers noted, at many of the events and protests the campaign has staged, not enough students have turned up to visibly and vocally show their support. In November, when the Board of Trustees met on campus, about 40 supporters rallied outside the meeting. It wasn’t enough to impress McLean and other trustees, said Brown.
“This movement is a movement of people,” Brown said. “We think it’s really important that people show their faces. We need everyone to show up.”
Recently, Fossil Free NU received attention from Forbes in an article regarding the debate it hosted on nuclear energy. While such coverage could help the campaign connect with alumni, trustees and professors, Cilento said that the real challenge is still mobilizing students on campus.
“This is the weird paradox," she said. "So much of our student body supports divestment. But it’s such an uncontroversial issue that people don’t get rallied up about it."
As more high profile universities such as Stanford and Syracuse have announced the intention to divest from coal and fossil fuels, the campaign at Northwestern has received support from University President Morton Schapiro. However, the campaign encountered a setback when the investment committee quietly met and voted against coal divestment in November, without informing the student leaders until March.
“But we’re not planning on quitting any time soon,” Cilento said. “They’re not getting rid of us that easily.”