Hungry for change: Ivy League climate activists urge divestment

In global hunger strike, Columbia University students are fasting until Friday to force school to go carbon neutral.

XR Columbia hunger strikers
Hunger strikers at Columbia University in the City of New York began their fast on Monday to force quicker climate action [Extinction Rebellion]

New York, United States – As part of a worldwide week of hunger strikes by activists in Extinction Rebellion franchises, a group of students at Columbia University in the City of New York began rejecting all caloric intake on Monday to call attention to their school’s lack of action to address the climate crisis.

The four activists – who join other “rebels” from Canada to the Congo and the Netherlands to Turkey – told the university administration in a letter submitted on Friday that they will not eat until four demands are met.

They are trying to compel the Ivy League university to declare a “climate emergency” and “reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – including complete divestment from fossil fuels – by 2025″.

The activists are also lobbying for climate justice in neighbourhoods surrounding Columbia University through the formation of a community assembly to monitor progress towards environmental goals.

“Tell us why Columbia’s $11,000,000,000 endowment continues to fund climate death through its investment in fossil fuels,” demanded the group’s letter, adding that they “will use our privilege to refuse food as a small representation of the sacrifices to come.”

But some critics say their timeline – going carbon neutral in half a decade – is overly ambitious, while others argue that divestment may not be the most effective strategy for actually decreasing consumption of oil and gas in the United States.

‘Caused this crisis’

Extinction Rebellion released a statement on its website ahead of the strike explaining the symbolism behind this week’s protest measures.

“The hunger strikers recognize that what they are doing is minor compared to the truly dire starvation that ten percent of the world’s population faces” as a result of global warming and the resulting catastrophic weather events.

Arthur, one of the four students on hunger strike at Columbia University, asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname to protect his privacy. He and his fellow strikers have sworn off all calories until Friday evening, saying the group would consume “only electrolyte solutions, thiamine, B12, calcium, fluids and nutrients, and some herbal tea”.

The activists have taken up position for the week on a bench at Butler Library in front of a mural of the Greek goddess Athena, which Arthur said symbolically “bridges the gap between knowledge and action”.

Arthur told Al Jazeera that the climate protesters would be negotiating in “very good faith” when they meet with university officials and leaders from two key bodies on campus: The Earth Institute, which focuses on sustainability issues, and the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, which advises the school’s trustees on ethical and social issues affecting the endowment.

A spokesman for the Earth Institute said the organisation does not deal with investment management concerns. A spokesperson for the Center on Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs declined to comment on the local implications of climate change.

And the main communications office for Columbia University did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment.

Abi, another hunger striker who asked Al Jazeera to withhold her surname, said: “Columbia has a responsibility to its students and [the] community around it to divest from companies which knowingly caused this crisis.”

‘Poor investments’

One notable faculty voice at Columbia suggests that while divestment is necessary, turning carbon neutral within the timeframe demanded by the activists is simply unrealistic.

“I don’t think it is physically possible for the university to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025,” said Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

“That would require, among many other things, converting the heating systems in all its buildings away from oil and natural gas to electricity,” he told Al Jazeera. “And even then, New York City’s electricity supply is primarily furnished by natural gas and nuclear.”

Gerrard, a professor of professional practice who studies the intersection of climate change, environmental law and energy regulation, said the university has already divested from coal and it makes good financial sense for the endowment to jettison its other fossil fuel holdings.

“Investments in fossil fuel have been poor investments from a purely financial perspective,” he said. “And [even] if they were good investments, the university should not be profiting from them.”

‘Solve the problem’

But on the other side of the country at Stanford University – often touted as a “West Coast Ivy”- there is at least one dissenting voice that believes divestment from fossil fuels is the wrong approach for tackling climate change. 

“The best thing for them to do is take a class in environmental economics,” said Frank Wolak, a professor of commodity price studies in the Department of Economics at Stanford University. “Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.”

Wolak, who also serves as director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, told Al Jazeera that divestment “mostly vilifies a significant segment of the economy, and reduces the return that Columbia gets on its endowment” to be used for financial aid, faculty salaries and academic research.

Reducing fossil fuel consumption – rather than cutting investment – would make the most significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions, Wolak argues, adding that tuition could rise if the school’s investment office prioritises activism over expertise in financial markets.

Wolak says it makes more sense to embrace a “carbon pricing” scheme that shifts the financial burden for the environmental and social damage caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions back onto emitters.

“It would be much better if [the activists] said: ‘We are willing to tax carbon and pay more for the carbon intensity of the goods and services we consume’,” said Wolak.

Yale University – an Ivy League institution in New Haven, Connecticut – has already implemented a carbon pricing scheme, as a way of incentivising the private sector to reduce GHG emissions.

The best thing for them to do is take a class in environmental economics.

by Frank Wolak, Department of Economics at Stanford University

Wolak says Extinction Rebellion activists could focus on encouraging Columbia University to adopt the same sort of programme, instead of “polarising the issue … and greenwashing themselves”.

“How do they know whether the electrons coming into Manhattan are from solar or other renewable sources?” Wolak asked, dismissing such a quixotic push from the ivory tower to pop the carbon bubble.

But for four college and graduate students at Columbia – and their fellow Extinction Rebellion activists around the world – an extreme tactic like shunning sustenance is a small price to pay for raising awareness of what they see as the most pressing emergency facing planet Earth and all who inhabit it.

“By denying themselves of their basic needs, the hunger strikers hopes that their bodies will sound the alarm,” said Extinction Rebellion.

Source: Al Jazeera