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At Dartmouth, a New Call for Divestment

  • From left, Dartmouth student Leehi Yona, Cornell's Ratnika Prasad and Green Mountain College's Scott Chernoff carry a banner as part of last weekend's climate change rally in Washington. (Courtesy photograph)

    From left, Dartmouth student Leehi Yona, Cornell's Ratnika Prasad and Green Mountain College's Scott Chernoff carry a banner as part of last weekend's climate change rally in Washington. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Dartmouth College students pose for a photograph during a climate change rally in Washington last weekend. (Courtesy photograph)

    Dartmouth College students pose for a photograph during a climate change rally in Washington last weekend. (Courtesy photograph)

  • From left, Dartmouth student Leehi Yona, Cornell's Ratnika Prasad and Green Mountain College's Scott Chernoff carry a banner as part of last weekend's climate change rally in Washington. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Dartmouth College students pose for a photograph during a climate change rally in Washington last weekend. (Courtesy photograph)

Hanover — Students at Dartmouth College are joining their peers at more than 250 colleges and universities across the nation in pushing their school to divest from energy companies dealing with fossil fuels.

Such campaigns are already under way at several Ivy League colleges, though none have yet chosen to divest.

So far, only three small New England colleges — Sterling, Unity and Hampshire — have decided to divest, although their endowments are quite small.

Divest Dartmouth is still in its infancy and consists of a group of about 30 students. But freshman Leehi Yona, one of the founders of Dartmouth’s campaign, is hoping to have a petition and a divestment proposal ready to present to Dartmouth’s trustees and administrators during the spring term.

“We want to work with the administration. This is not a finger-pointing exercise,” said Dartmouth junior Annie Laurie Mauhs-Pugh, who is a leader in the campaign.

The national movement has been compared to the divestment campaign against apartheid in the 1980s, when Dartmouth agreed to divest from companies involved with South Africa, and this new campaign appears to be gaining momentum. A week ago, students at the University of Vermont rallied for divestment outside a board of trustees meeting and the Harvard University trustees scheduled a meeting earlier this month to discuss divestment.

The national movement was prompted by author and environmental activist Bill McKibben and his 350.org and Fossil Free campaigns. (Many scientists and climate experts say that 350 parts per million is a safe amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently, the world is at 392 parts per million, and 350.org’s campaign is meant to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide.) The campaign started in 2008, but the divestment movement took off after McKibben penned a 2012 Rolling Stone article about global warming and then kicked off a 20 city “Do the Math” tour.

Now there are 256 colleges and universities where students are urging their administrations to divest from fossil fuels, according to 350.org.

Like many colleges across the country, Dartmouth students plan to ask their administration to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel extracting companies, which include ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron.

So far, New England has been a hot spot for divestment activity, and the only three colleges that have agreed to divest are in New England. McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, whose administration announced in December that it will begin investigating how it could divest. Of its $900 million endowment, about 3 percent is invested in fossil fuel companies.

In an email to the Valley News, McKibben said that the campaign is likely taking off in New England because it has seen the harsh effects of climate change, citing Tropical Storm Irene as an example.

“We’ve been greening those campuses for a decade,” McKibben said. “If it makes sense to green the dining hall, it makes sense to green the portfolio.”

The idea to divest at Sterling College actually came from a trustee, said Sterling President Matthew Derr. Sterling bills itself as the smallest liberal arts college in the nation with 100 students and an endowment of $960,000, so its promise to divest from fossil fuels will have little effect on the overall mission of cutting the use of fossil fuels. By comparison, Dartmouth’s endowment is about $3.5 billion.

But for Sterling, a college focused on environmental stewardship, it is a civic obligation not to invest in fossil fuels, Derr said.

“There’s a big difference in using these resources and investing in them” he said. “You’re taking advantage to increase your income from it. That’s a big ethical question.”

But how effective is divestment? And would it financially hurt an institution like Dartmouth?

In 1989, Dartmouth sold off $11.5 million in investments in companies that were doing business in South Africa during apartheid rule. Prior to the decision to divest, students built shanties on the green to protest apartheid. In 1986, a group of conservative students attacked the shanties with sledgehammers. The college eventually told the anti-apartheid protesters that they had to move the shanties off campus.

Dartmouth economics professor Eric Zitzewitz said the difference between investment protests over apartheid and fossil fuels is that the latter make up a much bigger piece of the economic pie. And Zitzewitz said there’s no guarantee that there would be an effect on companies’ behavior.

For instance, if Dartmouth and other universities divested from fossil fuels, stock prices could fall, but other investors would then step in to take advantage of better investment returns.

Zitzewitz said divestment could also increase the riskiness of the endowment because a broad-based portfolio is more stable.

“I think the bigger issue is whether it’s a good idea or not,” Zitzewitz said.

There are better ideas for reducing fossil fuel consumption, he said.

Instead of divesting, he recommended a gas tax that would discourage fossil fuel consumption and cause consumers to buy fuel efficient cars. He said he worries that all this “creativity” aimed at divestment is distracting from a more simple tool.

“If you were to lobby Dartmouth to do something, try to make us think hard about reducing our own energy consumption. It’s more obvious that you would have a direct effect,” Zitzewitz said.

Yona, the founder of the current Dartmouth campaign, said that she thinks there are many possible solutions to the climate change problem and divesting is just one of them.

“It’s about making a statement that we as a Dartmouth community want to ensure that we have a future that is livable and in a relatively normal climate,” Yona said. “It’s a message we’re sending to Congress.”

Yona and a group of 15 Dartmouth students also traveled to Washington D.C. over the weekend to participate in a climate change rally. About 40,000 people descended on the National Mall on Sunday to urge the government to address climate change and to block the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Persuading Dartmouth to divest would also involve winning support from the board of trustees, which includes several major Wall Street investors. Trevor Rees-Jones, the founder and CEO of Texas-based Chief Oil & Gas, is also on the Dartmouth board.

Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said that college officials are aware of the student campaign to divest, but also said that when Dartmouth divested in the past — during apartheid and in 2005 during the genocide in Darfur — it was because of a global movement that had a “clear moral imperative.”

But Yona said she’s hopeful that Dartmouth will take the initiative and be the first Ivy League school to make the commitment.

“I think it’s a matter of time,” Yona said. “I think the biggest obstacle is realizing that climate change is a really urgent issue and we need to take action as soon as possible, but that change will be slow in the coming.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.