What you can do about climate change

February 7, 2020

You’re probably freaked out about climate change. There’s a good chance you feel totally overwhelmed or powerless. What can one person do when it feels like the world is heading in such a hopeless direction? The thing is, a person acting alone often can’t do much. But here’s the amazing thing: as students we can use our collective power to get our institution, Brandeis, to take action. That, along with the collective power of thousands of other institutions, can make a difference. That’s the idea behind the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Fossil fuel divestment is a movement to take investments out of the fossil fuel industry. The movement started in 2012, with students demanding that their universities divest. A campaign started at Brandeis that same year. Since then, there have been two thorough reports on divestment written by students, faculty and administrators, various committees and many excuses from the Board of Trustees (the administrative body in charge of making our investment decisions). In fall 2018, after increasing student pressure, the Board finally held its first vote on fossil fuel divestment.

The decision the Board made was to continue to not invest in coal (in which we have never had any investments because coal has not been profitable for a long time) and to not make any new direct investments in gas and oil for the next three years. This only affected a small portion of our endowment (direct investments) and not the over 90 percent of our investments that are in commingled funds. Although this was a step in the right direction, it was not divestment. Most upsettingly, President Ron Liebowitz said in the decision, “We will review these actions in three years to evaluate their impact and consider future action.” The university has used numerous stall tactics throughout the years, and with this decision it put a three-year pause on even thinking about full divestment. 

I’m sure you’ve caught on that climate change action is urgently needed. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a multinational group of the world’s top researchers on climate change, made the call that in order to avoid the worst possible effects of climate change, we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050. Since that report came out, global emissions have continued to increase. It is clear that we have no chance of avoiding a total climate catastrophe without large and rapid change. What we’re doing now to deal with climate change is just not working. 

Some claim that divestment isn’t effective against climate change and we should instead be focusing solely on reducing our emissions. Obviously reducing emissions is our ultimate goal, so let’s think about how that could happen. Emissions reductions can be made on an individual level (i.e. let’s ride our bikes more) or with the help of government policies. Individual efforts by themselves, while important, will never be enough to address climate change given the scope of change needed. Government intervention is necessary to mitigate climate change. So why have we known about climate change for decades and seen no meaningful policy changes? That answer lies in the fossil fuel industry’s stronghold on our governments. 

Fossil fuel companies spend millions of dollars a year lobbying to delay and block the policies we need, as well as funding climate doubt and denial campaigns; the book and movie “Merchants of Doubt” is a good place to start learning about this. These companies have the power to stop climate action because they have a lot of money. Therefore, in order to make the necessary emissions reductions, we must take the power away from these companies by divesting.

The Board has been saying for eight years that divestment is difficult and it takes time. Well it has had close to a decade to figure it out. Over 1,000 other institutions have done so, including schools even smaller than Brandeis. It’s long overdue that Brandeis, the “social justice institution,” take this action. With scarier climate change projections coming out every day, it is despicable that Brandeis is continuing to financially support the corporations that are causing this. Greta Thunberg recently said that every institution in the world must divest immediately for us to have a chance at keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees. Brandeis can and should be a leader in this. 

I started this piece by saying YOU can do something about climate change. While I don’t believe individual emissions reductions can save us, I do believe in the power of collective action. Divestment is a powerful action to stop climate change. The Board has all the information it needs to make the right decision, now it needs to see that students will not back down. On February 13, students on campuses around the country will be participating in a national Fossil Fuel Divestment Day to put pressure on their universities to divest. On this day, show your support for fossil fuel divestment by wearing orange all day, and at noon come to the Peace Circle (by Usdan) to chant and hear speakers. Show the Board of Trustees that students demand we divest now. Climate change is not waiting and neither will we. To get more involved and stay updated on divestment actions, like Brandeis Climate Justice on Facebook.

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