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Students Converge for National Conference on Fossil-Fuel Divestment

Student-led campaigns urging colleges and universities to divest their stockholdings in fossil-fuel companies have materialized in recent months on more than 230 campuses. Nearly 200 student organizers from across the country will gather this weekend at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, for a conference that leaders hope will unify the movement.

Nearly two years ago, students at Swarthmore began pushing the liberal-arts college to sell off its endowment holdings in fossil-fuel companies. Many students campaigning nationwide for divestment say that removing university financial backing from such companies can be a way to combat climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

In the fall of 2010, Swarthmore’s divestment group visited a group in West Virginia led by Larry Gibson, an environmental activist who died last September, according to Sachie J. Hopkins-Hawakawa, a senior studying political science and an organizer of this weekend’s conference. After returning from the trip, Ms. Hopkins-Hawakawa said the group was “committed to finding a way to work in solidarity” with Mr. Gibson’s group. Young people have an important role in influencing climate change, she said.

Last May student activists at Swarthmore urged the college’s Board of Managers to sell off its holdings in fossil-fuel companies, but the proposal was rejected. Ms. Hopkins-Hawakawa said the board had told the activists that the college’s mission was a “fully educational one” and that endowments and investments should not be used as political tools.

“Institutions of higher learning need to be on board with this mission,” Ms. Hopkins-Hawakawa said. “It’s irresponsible for them to continue investing in companies that are perpetuating these environmental problems.”

“Even if one school doesn’t divest,” she said, “you can support students at another school making progress.”

Harvard University, for example, has agreed to create the new post of vice president for sustainable investing at its investment-management company. This person will consider the environmental, social, and corporate-governance aspects of the institution’s endowment holdings.

At the University of California at Berkeley, the student government passed a bill this month that calls for divestment of its assets from fossil-fuel companies. The student government has $3-million to $4-million in total assets, with just over $1-million in investments, according to Nolan Pack, a student senator and an author of the bill. The bill also includes a call to action for the campus and the entire university system to divest from fossil-fuel companies.

Student representatives from both universities will be among those attending the conference this weekend.

In addition to building bonds among student campaigns, conference organizers hope to connect students with other environmental activists who represent communities already being affected by fossil-fuel extraction.

“We have been very intentional about making sure we continue to act in solidarity with those communities,” Ms. Hopkins-Hawakawa said. “In our understanding, you can’t separate those two things.”

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