Despite new failures, campus fossil fuel divestment groups are pressing on harder than ever

This week, Stanford University’s board of trustees announced it would not divest from fossil fuels, despite having announced last year that they would pull out funds from coal stocks.

The decision was particularly striking because Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist, serves on the board. Steyer declined to be interviewed by me, but did release a statement saying he “strongly disagreed” with the decision.

The Stanford failure is the latest campus divestment defeat in a long line of them. Despite years of activism, just a handful of U.S. schools have moved forward on fully divesting from fossil fuels. My colleague Felix Salmon has written why divestment, meaning shifting school endowment funds out of shares of companies involved in coal, oil and gas extraction, is a matter of basic ethics. Stanford’s board rejected this argument, arguing that too many in the developing world continue to rely on such fuels to ethically remove them.

Yet Stanford’s divestment group remains entirely undeterred by both the outcome and their arguments. Zhanpai Fang, a freshman member of Fossil Free Stanford, told me the group now plans to target individual board of trustees members, and have created dossiers on each.

“We’re not going away,” she said. “We will not stop until we win full divestment. We will continue reaching out to students and faculty, and continue to shame the board for making decision is a betrayal of Stanford’s values.”

Indeed, the campus divestment movement appears to be more active and widespread than ever. Here’s just a sample of recent actions:

New York alone is home to three epicenters of the divestment fight. Earlier this month, students at NYU occupied the elevator leading up to the president’s office (that’s the image shown in the header above) demanding a meeting with administrators over the school’s fossil fuel investments.

At Columbia University, students staged a similar sit-in this month at the school’s main administrative building.

columbia divestColumbia Divest for Climate Justice

Bernie Sanders Tweeted out his support of both groups.

And students at Vassar staged a 5-day sit-in this week demanding a meeting with president over the school’s fossil fuel investments.

“We’ll definitely continue here” despite the developments at Stanford, Vassar senior Martin Man told me, adding that his group sees itself as part of a “national, and even international, escalation” in the fight to remove financial support from coal, oil, and gas companies.

Bill McKibben, head of climate action group and the spiritual leader of the campus divestment movement, told me in an email that in no way would the movement be affected by Stanford’s decision—or any other school’s rejection.

“In three years activists around the world have taken that notion from the fringe to the absolute center of the conventional wisdom—now it’s not just 350 saying that, it’s the governor of the Bank of England, it’s the World Bank, it’s pretty much everyone,” he said. “Stanford’s board can’t screw up that process—mostly they can damage their own historical legacy.”