In March, a group of friends and I participated in a youth-organized climate strike at Los Angeles City Hall. The demonstration was part of a larger day of climate action spearheaded by Swedish activist Greta Thundberg. Greta’s activism initially sparked my interest in the climate crisis. Seeing a student only a few years older than me ignite an international movement demanding action inspired me to join the climate fight. On Friday the 25th, my peers and I walked out of our classrooms at 11:30 a.m. and ventured to Downtown Los Angeles. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the noise of speaker phones and cheering. The crowd, a collection of all age groups, socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds, held signs with clever slogans demanding comprehensive climate action.
One young girl particularly stuck out to me. She was no older than 10 and carried a homemade sign reading, “You’ll die of old age, we’ll die of climate change.”
After speeches from activists, scientists and students, the demonstration of roughly 200-300 supporters halted traffic and marched on Grand Avenue. We walked by the Walt Disney Concert Hall and other famous L.A. landmarks lining the street. During a lull in the chanting, I was handed a speakerphone. Nervously, I raised the amplifier to my lips and shouted, “What do we want?”
“Divestment,” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?”
Divestment efforts have become a pillar of the climate movement. The term “divestment” refers to the selling of investments or re-allocation of endowment money. In the context of environmental movements, activists demand major institutions stop investing their money in the fossil fuel industry. According to the Environmental Protections Agency, fossil fuels are responsible for more than 70% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. The industry, a major contributor to environmental degradation, is primarily funded by educational, religious and governmental institutions across the country, like colleges and universities. Schools nationwide collectively invest billions of dollars into fossil fuels. These establishments invest their endowments in fossil fuel companies to generate income and maintain stable funds. Though seemingly unintentional, such investments contribute to the climate crisis.
A recent wave of social pressure has persuaded many institutions to shift their investments from fossil fuels to renewable energies. More than 1,000 institutions worth a combined $8 trillion have committed to divesting in the last five years according to Fossil Free, a nonprofit organization focused on combating the fossil fuel industry. Universities are leading the movement away from fossil fuels, such as the University of California system, which announced in early 2020 that it would be “the largest educational system in the United States to divest from fossil fuels and shift toward renewable energy.” Other fossil-free colleges include Harvard University, Boston University, Georgetown University and Brown University.
While many universities have divested from fossil fuels, private high schools have been slower to take up the fight. These schools follow roughly the same financial structure as universities while maintaining similar endowments, but the list of divested high schools is a short one.
In 2015, George School in Pennsylvania became the first secondary school to partially divest from the fossil fuel industry. The move was orchestrated by a group of 12 high school students who believed their school’s investment in fossil fuels directly contradicted the institution’s mission, which preached “faithful stewardship of the earth.” To start, the students submitted a divestment proposal to their school administrators. A committee of faculty and board members was formed to investigate the proposal, meet with the students and eventually develop a resolution. The committee agreed to divest their $150 million endowment from coal companies. Though George School did not completely divest from the fossil fuel industry, its progress has opened the door for other private high schools to follow suit.
Hearing of George School’s success motivated me to look into my own private high school’s endowment and divestment history. After close discussion with my school’s sustainability coordinator, I found that a student group had submitted a divestment proposal to the Board of Trustees in May of 2021. Similar to George School, my school convened the board to investigate the proposal and meet with students. Unfortunately, the pandemic interrupted the process, and the efforts stalled. The students responsible for submitting the proposal graduated online, and the administration dropped the proposal. The climate strike I recently attended, however, has inspired me to reignite the divestment movement at my school. I have focused my efforts on expanding community awareness by hosting assemblies and publishing an article about fossil fuel divestment in my school paper. In addition, I drafted a petition in support of the divestment proposal, which has garnered almost 100 student and faculty signatories. I am now waiting on a response from our administration.
Students interested in pursuing divestment efforts at their own schools should model their plans on the process exemplified by George School. Begin by investigating current sustainability efforts on your campus; many schools have sustainability coordinators or an environmental student group. Reach out to other students that may support such a cause; the more active voices supporting divestment within your community, the more pressure you place on your administration. Once you’ve checked out what exists and built your base, draft a proposal to send to your Board of Trustees outlining the dangers of the fossil fuel industry and proposed actions of divestment. Lastly, follow up! Do not let your administration disregard your efforts.
Institutions have little motivation to divest from the fossil fuel industry on their own accord because it provides schools consistent returns on their investments. Student body pressure can be the driving force in the divestment movement. When student voices are absent, progress is thwarted. The fossil fuel industry is directly responsible for the climate crisis; thus, if we are serious about combating climate change, the industry must be at the forefront of our efforts. It starts with where we put our money.