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How divestment became a ‘clarion call’ in anti-fossil fuel and pro-ceasefire protests
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How divestment became a ‘clarion call’ in anti-fossil fuel and pro-ceasefire protests

Cameron Jones first learned about fossil fuel divestment as a 15-year-old climate organizer. When he enrolled at Columbia University in 2022, he joined the campus’s chapter of the youth-led climate justice group the Sunrise Movement and began pushing the school in New York to sever financial ties with coal, oil and gas companies.

“The time for institutions like Columbia to be in the pocket of fossil fuel corporations has passed,” Jones wrote in an October 2023 op-ed in the student newspaper directed toward the Columbia president, Minouche Shafik.

Today, 19-year-old Jones, like many other student protesters and campus organizers, is just as focused on pushing the school to divest from another group of businesses: those profiting from Israel’s war in Gaza. He and others see the issues as firmly connected, with activists learning from tactics used in both of the often overlapping movements.

“Once we see large institutions like universities taking the steps to sever ties with harmful institutions, we will then hopefully see corporations and countries and cities follow suit,” Jones said on Monday, speaking from the student encampment of demonstrators on Columbia’s campus who are protesting against the war and the university’s ties to Israel.

In particular, students are demanding the university drop its direct investments in companies doing business in or with Israel, including Amazon and Google, which are part of a $1.2bn cloud-computing contract with the state’s government; Microsoft, whose services are used by Israel’s ministry of defense and Israeli civil administration; and defense contractors profiting from the war such as Lockheed Martin, which on Tuesday reported its earnings were up 14%.

Columbia did not respond to a request for comment on the call for divestment. Last week in a campus-wide email, Shafik said that the encampment “severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students”.

She faced criticism for directing the NYPD to clear the encampment over the weekend. The student protesters have created a new encampment and say they will not clear the lawn until their divestment demands are met. Early on Wednesday Columbia University said it had extended a midnight Tuesday deadline by 48 hours for the encampment to disband after it reportedly said protesters had agreed to dismantle some of the tents; student negotiators said university leaders had threatened to call in the national guard and NYPD.

Divestment movements have a long history among US student activists.

In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Congress of Racial Equality held a New York City sit-in calling for Chase Bank to stop financing apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many campus organizers also successfully pressured their schools to cut financial ties with companies that supported the apartheid regime, including Columbia, which became the first Ivy League university to make such a change.

“The work we’ve done on fossil fuel divestment for years definitely took a lot of cues from those organizers,” said Matt Leonard, director of the Oil and Gas Action Network and an early advocate for fossil fuel divestment in the US.

The anti-apartheid campaign inspired another movement, too: the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Co-founded by a Palestinian Columbia University alum, BDS is a strategy that aims to end international support for Israel due to its treatment of Palestinians – a relationship many scholars and officials describe as another apartheid.

BDS includes fossil fuel divestment in some cases: today, Leonard is pressuring institutions to cut ties with the oil giant Chevron because it is extracting gas claimed by Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.

Fossil fuel divestment campaigners have in recent years seen major wins on US campuses, with about 250 US educational institutions committing to pull investments in polluting companies, according to data from Stand.earth and 350.org.

Calls to divest from Israel, meanwhile, have seen more muted success. While numerous campus groups have called for their institutions to take up the BDS framework, no US universities have made such a commitment.

Some institutions such as Hampshire College re-examined their investments with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in mind. And other colleges have come close to divesting. In 2019, for instance, a Brown committee recommended the university do so, said Olivia Katbi, organizer with the BDS movement.

But supporters are optimistic, as they say BDS is currently seeing unprecedented support from students, faculty and alumni. “The Gaza solidarity encampments … are finally able to loudly uplift the demand to divest from Israel in a way that cannot be ignored,” said Katbi. “Business as usual should no longer be possible during a genocide.”

Protesters calling for divestment from the war in Gaza have chosen divergent targets. Some groups, such as Yale University’s Endowment Justice Coalition, are pushing administrators to drop investments in weapons manufacturers specifically.

Other campus activists’ demands are broader. Students with Columbia University Apartheid Divest – a coalition of dozens of campus groups including the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter – for instance, are calling for a divestment from holdings with companies doing business with Israel, as have groups at other colleges.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), said this kind of variance has always existed in Palestinian solidarity campus movements. When it comes to selecting targets, she said, “there is no one best kind”.

For years, she said, some groups placed focus on companies like the common Israeli hummus brand Sabra. Though the economic impact of putting Sabra out of business would not have had much effect on Israel overall if it had been successful, the campaign “was great for educational reasons”, she said.

She advised anyone picking targets to keep political goals in mind. “Try to answer to the question: if it succeeds, what is this action going to do to build the movement to stop the genocide? What’s it going to do to change Biden’s policy?” she said. “That’s urgent.”

In many cases, she said, that means efforts that can appeal to the largest number of people will be most successful.

Katbi noted there were numerous resources designed to help design divestment campaigns. One simple approach, she said, was to adopt a universal human rights investment screen.

It’s “no surprise” that many campus organizers, Bennis said, were are fusing the demands for fossil fuel divestment and divestment from the war in Gaza. On Monday, Sunrise’s Columbia chapter held a Reclaim Earth Day event at the Columbia encampment to call attention to the relationship between the climate crisis and the war in Gaza. That includes the emissions from the aircraft and tanks Israel is using for the war as well as those generated by making and launching bombs, artillery and rockets, not to mention the environmental devastation.

“Israel is committing ecocide,” said Jones, who also works with Columbia’s SJP chapter.

Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition, which is leading the push for divestment from weapons manufacturers, is also calling for fossil fuel divestment.

“Divestment is an important tactic because it aims to retract social license from industries that profit from extraction and exploitation,” said Naina Agrawal, 21, a history major at Yale. “What business does a school have profiting from the same fossil fuel companies and war profiteers that are killing its students’ communities?”

Innovations in each divestment movement could spur further action in the other. Over the past five years, for instance, students have filed legal complaints claiming their universities’ investments in fossil fuels break an obscure law that requires non-profits to consider their “charitable purposes” when investing. On Monday, students at Columbia University, Tulane University and the University of Virginia submitted such filings.

Activists say the same tactic could potentially be used by campus Palestinian solidarity campaigners. Nicole Xiao, 19, a second-year Columbia student, said on Monday: “My efforts focus on fossil fuels, but this principle can include investments in Israel.”

Leonard said the campaigns against polluters had made it more difficult for oil majors to recruit young talent. He hopes to see the same dynamic play out for profiteers of the war in Gaza, including Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, which makes the Israeli missile defense system known as the Iron Dome.

As the movements have inspired one another, backlash has inspired backlash. In 2021, for instance, Texas passed a law forbidding the state from doing business with entities that “boycott energy companies”.

That law, which has sparked copycat legislation in several other states, was inspired by a 2017 law designed to prevent the state from doing business with entities who support BDS for Palestine.

And conservative lawmakers could argue that divestment from Israel runs afoul of some of the anti-BDS laws that have passed in dozens of states in recent years.

Both divestment movements have faced uphill battles. American University, for instance, only publicly announced fossil fuel divestment in 2020 though it had faced pressure to do so since 2012.

American’s student government passed a resolution on Sunday calling for the university to divest support from Israel. But the university president, Sylvia Burwell, has said the school will not comply with their demand.

Noel Healy, a geography and sustainability professor at Salem State University who got involved in fossil fuel divestment campaigns in 2012, said the upsurge of advocacy for divestment was in both cases a sign that young people are demanding accountability.

“Climate justice isn’t isolated from other forms of justice,” said Healy, who authored two studies analyzing the fossil fuel divestment movement. “Every bullet manufactured, every tank deployed, and every plane launched in a conflict zone has a carbon footprint that accelerates climate change. Divestment is a clarion call for peace and sustainability.”

Source: theguardian.com