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Generation Climate: Middlebury debates divesting from fossil fuels

Posted by Cailin Sullivan on Feb 12, 2013
Tags: climate change news, generation climate

"Generation Climate" is a blog series that gives voice to those who will experience the brunt of climate change: young people. Cailin Sullivan, a NativeEnergy intern from Middlebury College, contributed this post.

On January 20, environmental journalist and founder Bill McKibben concluded his national college divestment tour in the Old Chapel of Middlebury College, the school where McKibben and many other founders began discussing and organizing around the issue of global climate change. Backdropped by the chapel’s bronze organ pipes and with a howling Vermont wind beating on the windows, McKibben spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, activists, and skeptics. From my seat in the pews—filled despite a campus struck by a plague of flu—it was apparent that my college and my generation have recognized this crisis as our own. 

The topic of the evening was “Do the Math,” and McKibben was quick to lay out the numbers: 565 gigatons of carbon can be burned before we exceed 2 degrees Celsius of climate warming, a level of warming that even the most conservative governments have agreed is our absolute limit. Unfortunately, 2795 gigatons of carbon—almost five times more than the amount that would produce the catastrophic 2 degree increase—are already in the reserves of fossil fuel corporations.

These are statistics we’ve heard before, but the focus of the night was to apply the numbers to concrete actions. According to McKibben, and the growing Middlebury organization “Divest for Our Future,” we can begin by eliminating the 4 percent of our endowment that is currently invested in major fossil fuel companies and halt all future investments. Only two U.S. colleges have divested, but the movement has organizations on over 210 college campuses across the nation.

McKibben emphasized that divesting is not merely a moral posture. The Washington Post recently published an article stating that 2012 was officially the “hottest year on record in the contiguous United States” and that “Americans who might have thought climate change was a problem for the distant future are experiencing warmer temperatures in their own lifetimes.” While that realization may be slow to come on a national level, it’s had a growing presence on college campuses—and action is being taken.

This fall, a group of Middlebury students circulated a fake press release email to the school, stating that Middlebury was happy to announce its divestment plans in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit. I remember the mixed reactions from students after receiving the email—many were surprised that Middlebury was invested in fossil fuel companies to begin with. What about our plans for carbon neutrality or the pride we took in our biomass plant and our environmental studies major?

The sustainable endowment debate is ongoing at Middlebury. Many students hope we will eventually divest, much as we divested from companies related to South African apartheid in the 1980s. But, as McKibben explained clearly on Sunday night, this is an issue with an expiration date. It may soon be too late to reverse the effects of inaction. While Middlebury is a small slice of a much larger, and perhaps less cohesive, perspective on global warming, I think it is indicative of my generation’s perceptions of the urgency and gravity of climate change.

Unfortunately, students don’t sit on the board of trustees. We’ve got passion and energy and numbers, but little clout. While climate change feels increasingly like the cause of my generation, it’s still out of our hands in many ways. McKibben closed his lecture by reminding us to fill out tiny blue “Divest now!” postcards we had found on our seats, pre-addressed to our board of trustees. “If I were you I would write ‘Thank you’,” said McKibben wryly, “because they just have to do the right thing.”


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