Have College Students Discovered The Key To Avoiding Climate Change Catastrophe?

Here's what you need to know about fossil fuel divestment and how college kids are basically trying to save the world.

Divesting from fossil fuel corporations. I know you might hear the word "divesting" and completely zone out, or maybe "fossil fuels" brought you to this story thinking it was about the new Jurassic Park movie, which looks awesome but is totally unrelated.

If you're not sure what it all means just yet -- don't worry, we'll fix that in a sec -- the debate around fossil fuel divestment is still likely to impact to your life (and that of everyone else on the planet) so it's worth understanding what the movement is about, and how campuses across the country are leading the charge. MTV News headed to one such campus last week, where we caught up with two student members of NYU Divest, who spoke out on the issue with us.

But first, let's rewind a little:

Divesting 101

It's the very opposite of investing. Simply put, it means not putting money into something, even if the thing you're putting money into could potentially make you $$$.

scrooge mcduck

Why Divesting Makes Sense

As the old saying goes, money talks. If you don't put money into something, it's a symbolic gesture that you're not supporting that company or institution for political, moral and/or ethical reasons.

Organizations across the country are urging companies and institutions, including colleges and universities, to stop putting money into companies that deal with coal, oil and gas. The top 100 publicly traded coal companies and the top 100 publicly traded oil and gas companies worldwide are ranked by the potential carbon emissions on the Carbon Underground 200. Some of these companies include, but are not limited to BP, ExxonMobil, Coal India and Peabody Energy.

Since these companies are publicly traded, colleges and universities (among other institutions) can purchase stocks or bonds in them. The reasoning? It makes them dollar-dollar bills, y'all.

But, as pro-divesters argue, investing funds in fossil fuels is super risky for financial and environmental reasons. Let's start with Mother Nature, shall we?

Here's Why We Need To Re-Think Our Dependence On Fossil Fuels

Coal, oil and gas are commonly known as fossil fuels, because they came from things that were once alive, like plants and animals. This does not mean that your car is powered by tiny dinosaurs, which would be awesome, but highly impractical.

fossil fuels

When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy, they give off gas emissions -- you might know these as as greenhouse gases -- that linger in our atmosphere, absorbing heat and making the planet unnaturally hot.

So while we rely on burning fossil fuels to provide energy for our homes, workplaces, factories, transportation and more, we're also potentially causing the planet to overheat, which has all sorts of terrible implications.

From Floods To Droughts, Fossil Fuels Are Already Damaging Our World

NASA has an extremely thorough, extremely depressing list of environmental maladies that are already visible as a result of global climate change. These changes include, but aren't limited to:

- Sea levels rising

- Heavy downpours

- More wildfires

- Extreme heat

- Declining water supply (hello, California.)

Simply put, if you live anywhere on planet Earth, global climate change won't just affect your life in the future -- it's already impacting your world right now, at this very minute.

But College Kids Just Might Save The World

Groups around the country, particularly at colleges and universities, are pushing their institutions to stop investing in fossil fuel corporations.

NYU Divest/Facebook

nyu divest 1

"[Our] ultimate goal is obviously for the university to divest from [the] top 200 fossil fuel companies that have the highest stake and the highest impact in perpetuating fossil fuel industry," explained NYU's Luke Lindenbusch. "And the ways in which we achieve that are largely through collaboration between the students, faculty, alumni."

Divestment Is Nothing New -- But It's Worked Before

Divesting and human rights have a long, entangled and actually, quite successful relationship. In the 1980s, universities across the U.S. divested from corporations that did business in South Africa, where the country was operating under the racial segregation system of apartheid. Divesting helped to finally topple the apartheid regime in 1994. Like I said before, money talks, right? But sometimes, it has to scream to make a difference.

Since then, universities have employed divestment as a tool, withdrawing support from companies that did business in places that were violating human rights, like Rwanda and Darfur.

The students of NYU Divest are hopeful the model will once again prove to be a success. "We’re [pushing for] divestment because we’re trying to stigmatize an industry that has the potential to completely wreak havoc on our planet," said Olivia Rich. And "when a company has a highly unethical business model, divesting is a great way to take a public stance against the issue and shape media and political attention in a way that can foster action."

Can divestment hurt students?


This question is at the crux of the divestment conversation and is much debated. Some, like fellow NYU student Eli Nachmany, have argued against divestment, claiming it would cause the school's already astronomical tuition fees to rise.

However, Luke and Olivia made the point that what might be the most financially irresponsible thing for an institution to do is to invest in companies that generate fossil fuels, because there's only a finite amount of them on the planet.

Simply put, there's only so much oil, coal, and natural gas in the world. And we are using it up hella fast -- according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "In 2014, the United States consumed a total of 6.95 billion barrels of petroleum products [and] an average of 19.05 million barrels per day."

What's most important is not the limited supply of coal, oil and natural gas, but the catastrophic effect these things are already having on our planet. The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere continues to climb as a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels. It's making our planet, and the people on our planet, sick. Research suggests that besides causing extreme weather conditions and smog, carbon pollution might be linked to heart and lung diseases.

"Furthermore, this isn’t completely about making money, this is about doing what’s right for the environment," said Olivia.

How is this both an environmental and human rights issue?

Environmental changes can have disastrous effects on people's lives, and as Olivia pointed out, it's often the people who are least responsible for those pesky greenhouse gas emissions. "[The people in] the Maldives -- they’re gonna lose their island and they count for like so, so little carbon emissions and yet they’re facing so much worse than we could imagine living in New York," she said.

Those who have the least financial protection are impacted the greatest by the burning of fossil fuels, Luke argued: "Climate change at its core affects infrastructure and the people with the weakest infrastructure are the people who are most economically disadvantaged."

The clock is ticking. All in all, divesting calls our priorities into question. Which do we value more: the green faces on our dollars or a green planet?


Get it? Got it? Good. You can learn more about fossil fuels and divestment at