A handful of members of Macalester’s Fossil Free Mac huddled outside of the Campus Center on a cold, blustery Monday afternoon, dressed up as whoopie cushions and oil executives with clown noses for their own April 1 celebration: Fossil Fools Day. The event was designed to raise awareness about the organization’s efforts to convince Macalester’s administration to divest the college’s endowment from fossil fuels.
After collecting over 950 student signatures for a petition asking Macalester to begin the process, members of the group submitted their proposal to MCSG. Tuesday night they passed a resolution that “urges Macalester College and the Social Responsibility Committee to initiate a process to explore socially and fiscally responsible divestment from the fossil fuel industry.”
As part of Fossil Fools Day, Shaina Kasper ‘13 fictitiously asked students to apply for internships at Exxon Mobil.
“The number one goal of Fossil Fools is to raise awareness about climate change and how oil companies spread their message and make so much money but it’s also about our petition to help Macalester divest from fossil fuels,” she said. “We want the administration to start a process to figure out what [divestment] might mean, taking into account social and environmental reasons alongside economic.”
Most climate scientists agree that fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas are the primary contributing factors to global warming. 350.org, an organization founded by climate change activist Bill McKibben, has launched a worldwide campaign to convince colleges and universities to divest from companies that profit from fossil fuels. The organization defines divestment as “immediately freez[ing] any new investment in fossil fuel companies and divest[ing] from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years.” Over the last four years, four other colleges and at least one municipal government around the country have begun the divestment process.
The Fossil Free Mac campaign began in earnest last November after some students saw Bill McKibben speak at the University of Minnesota. His visit to Macalester’s campus in February sparked further action.
“There is a network of schools working on it,” Rick Beckel ’15 said. “It’s been exciting to work with other people who are the same age and passionate about the same things, working for change on a grassroots level.”
“More schools have now divested from fossil fuels,” Maria Langholz ’14 said. “Right now it’s mostly smaller schools with smaller endowments, but others are beginning to get on board.”
Unity College, Hampshire College, the College of Santa Fe and the city of Seattle have all initiated steps to separate their finances from companies who directly profit from fossil fuel production.
Stephen Mulkey, the president of Unity College, wrote at length in the Unity College Sustainability Monitor about the divestment process at that educational institution.
“First, we are certain that we will have zero direct investment in fossil fuels. Period,” he said. “Secondly, we operate the relevant part of our endowment through ETFs [exchanged traded funds], and it is quite possible to bias these away from certain sectors. Our investment firm is very comfortable with this approach, and we have worked through the details with them. While we cannot guarantee absolute zero at any given time, we can promise with great comfort that we will seek this zero point and never rise above a negligible value summed over any given year.”
The divestment process differs significantly from institution to institution, however, based on the size and structure of varying endowments. “We want to look more into [what other schools have done to divest] but it is really different than Macalester’s endowment so I don’t know if it will be translatable,” Beckel said.
The name of McKibben’s organization comes from the maximum amount of carbon dioxide most climate scientists consider safe in Earth’s atmosphere. “We’re already at 396 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the upper limit for the earth is 350, so we’re above what is safe for our planet by about 10 percent,” Beckel said. “If we want to avoid making things worse, we need to do things like divest.”
Anne Sombor ’14 agreed with the group’s intentions. “I signed the petition,” she said. “I think it’s important that we should put our money where our mouth is, and we can do way more by divesting as a large institution than anyone can individually.”
Patty O’Keefe, the Divestment Field Coordinator at Minnesota 350, was on hand to support students during the action. She works with 10 different schools in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin to coordinate divestment campaigns.
“The Macalester campaign has been different from others in that they are really the first school that has done some campus-wide actions such as this one,” she said. “Students take kind of similar progressive steps in their campaigns in terms of working through the bureaucracy of the administration and then escalating steps as the campaign progresses. “
She expressed admiration for the example set by the school so far. “Macalester is kind of the first one that has done an action such as this, and I’m hoping for the other schools to look at Macalester as an example for how to do a successful action on their campus.”
After MCSG voted to pass the resolution on Tuesday night, Beckel addressed supporters of Fossil Free Mac. “This is a great step forward for the fossil fuel divestment movement at Macalester,” he wrote. “With over 950 petition signatures, our cause is highly visible on campus, and the passage of the resolution establishes new legitimacy for this cause in the eyes of the campus officials.”
The group hopes to meet with President Rosenberg, the Investment Office and other administrative officials soon to begin discussion of possible divestment.