The question that Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune asked at the end of the hour was stark. In 41 years, when Brune's infant daughter is his age and these young activists from UNC-Chapel Hill have had their chance, will the planet be rescued from climate change? Or in mortal peril? Were they pessimistic or optimistic?
Pessimistic, one student answered. The more she learns about politics, the more cynical she becomes.
Agreed, a second student said. But he won't give in to his cynicism. "If you focus on that," he said, "there's no way out."
Of the two, Brune is the optimist.
McKibben told a sold-out crowd at Duke University's Page Auditorium that his role is "bumming people out" about climate change. Yes, there's still time to avoid calamity, but only if the world moves swiftly to a "wartime footing" against coal, oil and natural gas.
Join the fight, McKibben said, "and you will be doing the most important thing there is to do." He added, however: "I cannot promise you that it will be victorious."
Pessimistic, or optimistic? I asked Stewart Boss, a UNC senior who leads the campus Sierra Student Coalition.
"Neither," he said. "I focus on efficacy"—the best strategy.
The strategy Boss and his UNC cohorts adopted last year is the same one McKibben and Brune launched this summer: divestment.
No one should invest in corporations that profit by despoiling the Earth and jeopardizing human existence. Start with ExxonMobil, the biggest oil and gas producer. If you own stock in it, divest it—sell it. BP, Shell, the same. Coal and gas companies, too. Force them to change their ways. You should divest. So should UNC.
It's been a long time coming, but on Wednesday, Nov. 28, the Sierra Student Coalition has been granted an audience with university leaders who control the $2.2 billion campus endowment.
The Endowment 101 Forum is an open meeting with Chancellor Holden Thorp, three vice chancellors and Jon King, CEO of UNC Management Company. They hold the secrets about where that $2.2 billion is invested—yes, it's a secret—and how much is in oil, gas and coal. Boss hopes the forum will pry open some data.
Unlike many other universities, UNC-Chapel Hill has no public process for debating its investor responsibilities. Boss discovered that when his group began calling for divestment 15 months ago—and was stonewalled.
"Getting them to agree to just [hold a forum], to stand up in front of students and answer questions about it—a lot of the time questions they don't want to answer—has been like pulling teeth," Boss said.
Boss is a formidable advocate. As a freshman, he spearheaded a campaign against UNC-Chapel Hill's coal-fired power plant, a cause that seemed hopeless when Thorp haughtily dismissed it. Then, under pressure, Thorp reversed himself and committed the university to cease burning coal by 2020.
With divestment, Boss had a similar feeling of "being out in the wilderness," but that changed when McKibben, in a July 19 Rolling Stone article, called for environmentalists to pressure every university to pull their money from fossil fuels.
Last Friday, students at Harvard University voted 3-to-1 to support "Divest Harvard," a campaign aimed at the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel corporations.
Two colleges, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College in Maine, have divested so far. The latter is notable because Unity was the first to support South African divestiture in the 1980s.
The South Africa campaign is McKibben's model. Then, as now, politicians were on the wrong side of history, allied with the apartheid regime in Johannesburg just as they are with the giant fossil-fuel corporations.
By the mid-1980s, public pressure prompted 155 campuses and 26 state pension funds to divest from corporations doing business in or with South Africa. Pressure from the corporations in turn helped to bring down apartheid.
Similarly, the issue with the fossil fuel corporations isn't whether they're profitable, McKibben said. It's how they make their money—and whether honorable people can be associated with them.
"It's time to take away their cloak of respectability," he said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A strategy for climate change."