SWARTHMORE, Pa. -- Students at more than 200 colleges are asking their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies in the hope the effort will slow the pace of climate change.
The Fossil Free campaign argues that if it's wrong to pour pollution into the air and contribute to climate change, it's also wrong to profit from it.
The strategy, modeled after anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, aims to limit the flow of capital to fossil fuel companies by making their stocks morally and financially unattractive. In theory, that could lead to a slowdown in how much fossil fuel is burned and indirectly speed investments in renewable energy.
The students say it's hard for colleges and universities to ignore the arguments when scientists are teaching classes about the threats of climate change, and when the core mission of such institutions is to prepare young people for the future.
"We know this is something that's going to really matter in our lifetimes," said Sophie Harrison, an 18-year-old freshman at Stanford University. "The world that we're going to be raising our kids in is going to be very different from the one we were born into."
Fossil Free is targeting Stanford's $17 billion endowment, and last year 72 percent of Harvard University's student body voted for divesting its $30 billion endowment. Harvard officials responded by saying they have "a strong presumption against divestment."
It is far from certain that the campaign will help change the behavior of fossil fuel companies or public attitudes about climate change. But Fossil Free is growing, and it's backed by some powerful interests.
Major foundations - including the Rockefeller Family Fund - have donated more than $8 million to 350.org, Fossil Free's parent group, and a network of influential advisers and volunteers are building a global network to support the campaign.
The campaign started in 2010 at Swarthmore College, a liberal arts school outside Philadelphia. It has spread to private and public schools across the nation, including Harvard and Stanford, as well as Yale, Cornell, Ohio State and the University of Colorado. Five schools - Unity College and College of the Atlantic in Maine, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and Sterling and Green Mountain colleges in Vermont - have already voted to divest, and student votes are pushing for action at dozens more.
The original Swarthmore group was motivated by a visit to mining sites in West Virginia, where companies were removing entire mountaintops to get at coal.
"It's devastating. It's people's land, people's livelihoods being ripped out of the ground, literally," said Kate Aronoff, a Swarthmore junior from New Jersey and student activist. Aronoff said the student group returned to Swarthmore and quickly "came to divestment as something that lines up with our priorities."
During the 1980s, more than 225 U.S. companies stopped doing business in South Africa as public and stockholder sentiment turned against maintaining ties because of the country's institutionalized racism, or apartheid. At least 27 states, 88 cities and many universities adopted policies restricting investments, leading to a loss of billions of dollars of capital in South Africa.
Some of the people who oversee endowments say the issues aren't so clear-cut this time around. An analysis at Swarthmore found that fossil fuel divestment would cost the endowment $11 million to $14 million a year, said Gil Kemp, a member of the Swarthmore Board of Managers.
"I don't think that there is a single board member that doesn't agree with students that climate change is a huge issue for our world. The difference is in choice of tactics," said Kemp, who donated $20 million to the school in February.
In 1986, after years of pressure from student groups, Swarthmore agreed to eliminate investment links to South Africa. After that divestment, the board changed the school's policies, and Kemp said it now makes a practice of "not using the endowment for non-financial purposes."
Industry groups and observers say going fossil-free would involve much more than just divestment. Virtually everyone uses fossil fuels, one environmentalist noted.
"We all bear some of the blame for continued use of fossil fuels - it is not fair to put the blame solely on the oil companies," Harvard professor Daniel Schrag, director of the school's Center for the Environment, wrote in an email to the AP.
Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, argued that oil and natural gas fuel the economy "in the most efficient and reliable way possible."
Jason Hayes, the associate director for the American Coal Council, a lobbying group, said the "idea of students not using coal but using their iPads" doesn't make sense.
"Pretty much every single one of these students is going to be using a device that is powered by coal-fired electricity," he said.
Hayes questioned why the divestment campaign isn't targeting the entire transportation sector, since cars and trucks emit large quantities of greenhouse gases.
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