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2014-05-07

Stanford Divests: Student-Led Movement Forces Elite School to Pull Its Money from Coal Companies

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One of the country’s most prestigious universities, with one of the world’s largest endowments, has joined the student-led movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Stanford University’s Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to stop investing in coal-mining companies because of climate change concerns. The board said it acted in accordance with guidelines that let them consider whether "corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury" when choosing investments. Stanford’s endowment is valued at $18.7 billion. The move comes as the divestment movement heats up across the country. Seven students at Washington University in St. Louis were arrested last week following a 17-day sit-in calling on the school’s board of trustees to cut ties with coal industry giant Peabody Energy. Also last week, students at Harvard blockaded the office of Harvard President Drew Faust. We are joined by Stanford University junior Michael Peñuelas, one of the lead student organizers with Fossil Free Stanford.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the country’s most prestigious universities, with one of the world’s largest endowments, has joined the student-led movement to divest from fossil fuels. Stanford University’s Board of Trustees announced Tuesday it would no longer invest in coal-mining companies because of climate change concerns. The board said it acted in accordance with guidelines that let them consider whether, quote, "corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury" when choosing investments. Stanford’s endowment is valued at $18.7 billion. The university’s president, John Hennessy, said in a statement, quote, "Moving away from coal in the investment context is a small but constructive step while work continues at Stanford and elsewhere to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future."

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as the fossil fuel divestment movement heats up across the country. Seven students at Washington University in St. Louis were arrested last week following a 17-day sit-in. The students were calling on the school’s Board of Trustees to cut ties with coal industry giant Peabody Energy. Also last week, students at Harvard blockaded the office of Harvard President Drew Faust. One student was arrested.

For more, we go to Stanford University in California, where we’re joined by Michael Peñuelas. He is a junior majoring in Earth systems. He has been a faculty liaison and one of the lead student organizers with Fossil Free Stanford.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this victory, Michael, that you have had. Talk about the significance of what Stanford has done.

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: Certainly. Good morning. It’s an honor to be with you. So this move, this victory, is a major one in the climate movement, and it’s a major one for the divestment movement specifically. This is one of the first major acknowledgments on the part of the administration of a major university that anthropogenic climate change is a risk and that the dollars that we are investing and funding our education off of contribute to that pretty directly. So, we’re incredibly excited, and we’re proud of our university, that they’ve—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an interesting term that you’ve used—

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: —gone ahead and done this. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: —"anthropogenic," Michael. Explain what "anthropogenic" means.

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: Sure, man-made, man-made climate change. We are the drivers, and our burning of fossil fuels are the primary drivers of this climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael, can you explain how it is that you organized this campaign and how you got as many people, students and professors, involved that led to its success?

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: Sure. So, our generation is one of the first to have been raised the entire—you know, the entirety of our lives with this looming specter of climate change on the horizon. But tangible action that can be taken is often evasive. So when this opportunity presented itself to take our voices and unite them as students, to leverage the power and the name of our institution, that represents us and that we represent, I think students were really, really excited, and they jumped on board. We had recently an election on campus where over 2,700 students voted in favor of divestment. We’ve had hundreds of faculty, quite—you know, quite literally, almost 200 now, send expressions of support to our campaign, because they know that this is something that they can do, and they know that institutional action right now is what needs to happen to create concrete change in our country in terms of a positive direction for climate action, but also just to create this bigger space for dialogue, because our institutions have names, and they need to be part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m reading from The New York Times right now. It says, "The university said it acted in accordance with internal guidelines that allow its trustees to consider whether [quote] 'corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury' [unquote] when choosing investments. Coal’s status as a major source of carbon pollution linked to climate change ..." So, practically, what does this mean? Are you talking about Stanford divesting from some, what, 100 companies globally?

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: Yes, it does. It means that Stanford is going to remove all of its direct investments in—in a list of companies. We presented them a list of the 100 coal companies with the largest fossil fuel reserves, the largest amount of carbon in their reserves. And they’re going to set up some dynamic parameters by which companies can enter and exit that list, as their control of those reserves change. But yeah, practically, that’s exactly what that means, is that Stanford is going to stop supporting them and stop funding our education on those companies, those 100—those approximately 100 companies that are mining and extracting the coal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to Harvard. Last Wednesday, six students with the Divest Harvard campaign blockaded the main entrance to University President Drew Faust’s office and called for an open meeting about fossil fuel divestment. This is climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who’s now a student at the Divinity School, speaking at a rally after the action.

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Leadership is something that the campaign to divest from fossil fuels has been asking of Harvard for two years now. We’ve been asking them to be a leader on confronting the climate crisis and taking responsibility for our investments. And so, finally, yesterday, Harvard took some leadership and became the first school in the country to arrest its own student for requesting a public dialogue about fossil fuel divestment. That’s—that’s not exactly the kind of leadership that we were looking for.

As an institution with $32 billion in our endowment, as long as that money is invested in global markets, it has a global impact. That $32 billion is 32 billion connections to the broader world. And every one of those connections has an impact on real human lives. And every one of those 32 billion connections has a responsibility that comes with that impact. And Harvard has a responsibility to hear the voices at the other ends of those $32 billion.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Harvard Divinity School student and climate activist Tim DeChristopher speaking at a Divest Harvard rally last week. Last year, DeChristopher was released after serving 21 months in jail for interfering with a 2008 public auction when he disrupted the Bush administration’s last-minute move to sell off oil and gas exploitation rights in Utah. So, Michael, could you talk about how it is that Stanford’s campaign was so successful, and Harvard and other universities have responded so poorly to students’ campaigns to divest from fossil fuels?

MICHAEL PEÑUELAS: So this juxtaposition between the administration at Stanford’s response and the administrations at other schools—Harvard and Washington University, most notably, in the last week—is really an unfortunately salient one, and one that I think is being rightfully made in media across the country right now. And it’s the fact that Stanford maintained an open dialogue now for almost 18 months with students, meeting regularly and considering our concerns. And when 78 percent of our undergraduate body stands up and asks for divestment and states that they want Stanford’s endowment and its money to be brought in line with its core values, they listened. And I think Stanford has come out on the right side of history, and other schools haven’t up to this point. But I think that one of the most important points to be stressed on this is that there is still time for these other universities to go ahead and take that step and follow Stanford and the other schools that have come even before Stanford’s lead. And I think I would actually say that that’s—it’s integral at this point that for the success of our society in terms of moving past fossil fuels, these other universities do recognize the calls of those students that they’ve been reacting so negatively to thus far.

AMY GOODMAN: Groups across the country who are fighting Peabody Energy have put out the call for a national day of action for tomorrow, when the company holds its annual shareholder meeting in St. Louis. In a related effort, as you mentioned, Michael, students at Washington University’s St. Louis campus held a 17-day sit-in campaign to remove Peabody Energy CEO Greg Boyce from the school’s Board of Trustees. At a rally on campus in April, students laid out their other demands for the university to cut ties with the coal industry giant.

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT 1: We have a general concern for corporate responsibility and accountability. We want to hold Wash. U. accountable for the relationships that they have with these corporations. And we just really are concerned with the social injustices that Peabody perpetrates daily. We have concern for the way that Peabody destroys communities and destroys the environment. And we want—we don’t want Wash. U. to be a part of the fact that Peabody launders their reputation through universities and nonprofits and philanthropy. So we really want [inaudible]—

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT 2: So, our second ask directly addresses that. We feel that the university does not—and the administration, in particular—does not acknowledge the social injustices that Peabody commits. And so, we ask that Chancellor Wrighton visit front-line communities of Peabody’s coal-mining operations.

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT 1: And our third ask is that Wash. U. change the name of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization to something that represents a non-industry term, because "clean coal" does not exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Washington University students speaking at a rally on campus in April. And this is another student, Sam Lai, addressing Peabody Coal CEO Greg Boyce. He reads a poem by Fern Benally, a resident of Black Mesa, Arizona, which has felt the effects of Peabody’s extraction. The poem is called "Dear Mr. Boyce."

SAM LAI: "Dear Mr. Boyce, I’ve been thinking a lot about genocide, about my American inheritance, about haunted ground, fleeing homes, and the creation of ghosts, about the lessons of American history. Mr. Boyce, I haven’t heard the phrase 'forceful relocation of Native Americans' since high school history class. I didn’t think I would have to. I haven’t thought about what it’s like to breathe coal dust in a long time either, to open your window and feel a sting in your eyes, to sneeze and watch the tissue turn black, to develop asthma at the age of 22 because you play soccer in your backyard. I know, it isn’t easy to make energy and make profit without destroying the environment or exploiting workers. But it’s not our job to come up with solutions. It’s yours. You get paid a lot to come up with solutions."

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Washington University student Sam Lai addressing Peabody Coal CEO Greg Boyce, reading part of a poem by Fern Benally, a Black Mesa resident. I want to thank you very much, Michael, for being with us, from Stanford University. Michael Peñuelas is a junior at Stanford and an organizer with the Fossil Free Stanford. Again, the university has just decided to purge $18 billion—$18.7 billion of its endowment of coal stock. We now go, after break, to talk about what happened in North Carolina, the elections there, both of politicians and judges. Stay with us.

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