Environment

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is, of course, a history of social activism on many college campuses in this country. We're now going to hear about a current campaign to battle climate change that's borrowing from strategies of the past. Students at more than 300 colleges in the United States are asking their school's endowment fund to distance themselves from any coal-producing companies. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Divest coal - that's what Brown students are asking their university to do; dump coal stocks. Emily Kirkland is a senior at Brown. I reach her cellphone as she marches through her campus in Providence, R.I.

EMILY KIRKLAND: This is our fourth rally.

SHOGREN: Have you made any progress?

KIRKLAND: Absolutely. So our administration is taking us very seriously.

SHOGREN: Kirkland and about a dozen other students at Brown got the idea for their campaign in September from a Rolling Stone article by climate activist Bill McKibben. They could do what students of earlier generations did. In the 1980s, students outraged by South Africa's racist apartheid system got their universities to drop stock in the companies that did business with that government.

In the 1990s, student activists did the same with big tobacco. It's called divestment. This time, students are rallying against a mainstay of the economy: big oil and coal companies. Kirkland majors in environmental studies, so she knows a lot about climate change.

KIRKLAND: It was always something that felt abstract and academic until this year, when I started to witness the heat wave in the Northeast last winter, the wildfires in the West, the drought, Hurricane Sandy. It has started to feel like there's an emergency happening in slow motion, and it has started to feel really, really personal.

SHOGREN: The idea has taken off at about 300 colleges and universities. Four small colleges already have decided to stop investing in companies that mine coal or drill for oil. At Brown, Kirkland and other student activists are focusing only on companies that mine coal and produce electricity from it.

KIRKLAND: It's been really exciting for me to feel like this is the first time where I've seen how I can directly make a difference on my campus, and force my administration to make a decision that could have reverberations around the country.

SHOGREN: Brown has an advisory panel on responsible investments. That committee considered the students' request and after nine months, decided it agreed with them. Faculty member Chris Bull chairs the panel.

CHRIS BULL: What was decided was that mining and burning coal causes grave social harm, and that the committee did not believe it was good for Brown to be party to that.

SHOGREN: Bull says only a tiny portion of Brown's endowment is invested in these big coal companies. So it wouldn't be a big financial hit. So far, fossil fuel companies don't seem to be paying much attention to the students' campaigns. If Brown goes ahead and divests in coal companies, Duke Energy is one of the companies that will be off-bounds for investment. Duke provides electricity in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida and the Carolinas.

Duke wasn't aware of the campaigns, but company spokesman Tom Williams says Duke has reduced its carbon emissions in recent years. He also says although Duke's stock is thriving, the company doesn't want to lose any investors, especially not through a public divestment.

TOM WILLIAMS: People consider the brand of Duke as an asset, and I would agree with that completely. And if people see that the brand is somehow eroded in a meaningful way, that definitely can impact our stock.

SHOGREN: That's what climate activist Bill McKibben is hoping for. In the meantime, he says, the student activists are changing the minds of their peers.

BILL MCKIBBEN: What's amazing is just to see this bubbling up from a thousand directions. I mean, they're taking complete charge of all this, and that's as it should be.

SHOGREN: And all that work they're doing is turning some of them - like maybe Emily Kirkland - into the environmental leaders of the next generation.

KIRKLAND: The divestment campaign at Brown was really the first time that I'd gotten involved in activism, and it's now something that I know I want to be doing for a long time, because I've seen that it's powerful. And I know that it's the most - one of the most important things I could be doing right now.

SHOGREN: Kirkland has a job lined up as a climate change activist after she graduates later this month. The earliest Brown could make a decision is around graduation day. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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