At about 300 colleges across the country, young activists worried about climate change are borrowing a strategy that students successfully used in decades past. In the 1980s, students enraged about South Africa's racist Apartheid regime got their schools to drop stocks in companies that did business with that government. In the 1990s, students pressured their schools to divest Big Tobacco.
This time, the student activists are targeting a mainstay of the economy: large oil and coal companies.
So far only a few small colleges have opted to drop investments in fossil fuel companies. But already the movement is having a big impact on the students who are driving it — people like Emily Kirkland, a senior at Brown University, who has been leading the Brown Divest Coal campaign on her Providence, R.I., campus.
"It's been really exciting for me to feel like this is the first time where I've seen how I can directly make a difference on my campus and force my administration to make a decision that could have reverberations around the country," Kirkland says.
At most schools, students are asking the college governing boards to cancel investments in big fossil fuel companies. But at Brown the students narrowed their focus to the 15 biggest companies that mine coal and make electricity from it.
Kirkland's major is environmental studies, so she knows a lot about climate change. But she says she never felt moved to activism until recently.
"It was always something that felt abstract and academic until this year, when I started to witness the heat wave in the Northeast last winter, the wildfires in the West, the drought, Hurricane Sandy," she says. "It has started to feel like an emergency happening in slow motion, and it started to feel really, really personal."
Like groups at many other colleges and universities, the Brown students have spent the year holding marches, collecting signatures and demanding action from the school's president and board of trustees.
"Our administration is taking us very seriously," says Kirkland.
Brown's advisory panel on responsible investments considered the students' request and, after nine months of deliberation, decided it agreed with the students.
"What was decided was that mining and burning coal causes grave social harm and that the committee did not believe it was good for Brown to be party to that," says Chris Bull, a senior lecturer and researcher at Brown who leads the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies. The panel set criteria for how much coal a company should mine or burn to be considered unfit for investment. In its letter recommending that Brown divest, the panel stated that the these Coal companies cause such grave harm, "it would be deeply unethical for Brown University to continue to profit from them."
Only a tiny portion of Brown's endowment is invested in these big coal companies. So even total divestment, should it come to that, would not be a big financial hit for the university's endowment or for any of the companies. So far, fossil fuel companies don't seem to be paying too much attention to the students' campaigns.
If Brown does decide to divest coal companies, Duke Energy is one of the companies that would be off-limits for investment. Duke provides electricity in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida and the Carolinas.
Duke Energy wasn't aware of the campaigns, according to company spokesman Tom Williams, but he says Duke has reduced its carbon emissions in recent years. He also says that although Duke Energy's stock is thriving, the company doesn't want to lose any investors, especially not through a public divestment.
"People consider the brand of Duke as an asset, and I would agree with that completely," Williams says. "And if people see that the brand is somehow eroded in a meaningful way, that definitely can impact our stock."
Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org, argues that hitting the companies in their stocks is what's necessary to get the corporations and the government to start taking climate change seriously. And in the meantime, he says, the student activists are changing the minds of their peers.
"What's amazing is to see this bubbling up from a thousand directions," McKibben says. "I mean, they're taking complete charge of all this, and it's how it should be."
McKibben and other leaders of the environmental movement say all the hard work these students are doing is helping to prepare at least some of them to become the environmental leaders of the next generation.
It has already changed Emily Kirkland's life plans. She has lined up a paid job, starting after she graduates in May, with the advocacy group Environment America. That's something she never imagined she'd do as recently as a year ago, she says.
"The divestment campaign at Brown was really the first time that I'd gotten involved in activism, and it's now something that I know I want to be doing for a long time," Kirkland says. "I've seen that it's powerful. And I know that it's one of the most important things I can be doing right now."
The earliest Brown could make a decision is around graduation day. And if the decision is delayed until next year, younger Brown students say they'll be ready to keep up the pressure come next fall.