Fossil Free Movement as Learning Process

Respectful Dialogue and Negotiation at American University Sparks Opportunities for Constructive Debate

To mark Earth Day and pegged to a meeting of the Board of Trustees at American University, students involved in the Fossil Free AU movement are sponsoring today (April 22) a class walk out and rally on the campus quad. Several students involved in the movement have been active participants in my course this semester on "Communication, Culture and the Environment." As my class has debated and discussed paths forward on climate change, their perspective has been a very important one for others in the course to consider (the professor included).

Below is a note that one student sent along offering background on today's events and their goals. See more at their Facebook page.

I support the Fossil Free AU movement as a process, though I am unsure of whether their goals of full divestment can be achieved or if they were, if the outcome would have a tangible impact on the decisions of fossil fuel companies.

For more, see my discussion as part of this past Harvard Shorenstein paper I wrote on Bill McKibben and for a different perspective see the writing on the topic at The Nation by Harvard alum Wen Stephenson as he details the higher profile efforts on that campus.

Still, despite my doubts about the end goals of the movement, in my ten plus years of teaching about climate change as a political challenge, I have never witnessed students or a campus more engaged on the issue than in relation to divestment.

When people are engaged, that is when learning happens. My hope is that this process encourages the campus community to learn about civic engagement, negotiation and compromise in relation to climate change and that it sparks the types of conversations that lead to critical self-reflection on what climate change means for our future, how people can become involved, and what it means for our institutions.

My advice to the students as they lobby the Board of Trustees has been to be more congenial than confrontational, since ultimately they are more likely to succeed in reaching a compromise outcome if the Trustees like them and respect them even if they disagree with their end goals.

I have also advised that they use the campaign as a strategy to spark a broader conversation about where we are headed on climate change that includes conversations with students from a variety of backgrounds including religious affinity groups; the business school investment club; and campus Republicans, to name a few examples. As I wrote at Ensia magazine last year, on the road to climate progress, healthy disagreement wil be a strength rather than our undoing.

Here is more background on today's events:

On Earth Day, April 22nd, AU students will be walking out of their 2:35 classes at 3:40, participating in a rally on the quad and heading to the Board of Trustees Spring Open Forum to demand a fossil-free American University. In preparation for our walk-out, the Fossil Free AU campaign wants to be sure that our professors--especially those who are experts in environmental, climate and social justice issues--understand our motivation and have opportunities to be involved in the action.

The Fossil Free AU campaign has been working for 18 months to pressure our Board of Trustees to divest the university’s $550 million endowment from holdings in coal, oil and gas companies. In a year and a half, we have seen a lot of progress: 80% of students voted in support of divestment in a referendum, the faculty senate endorsed the campaign, over 30 campus clubs have joined the Fossil Free coalition, members of our campaign have presented to the Board’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing and have met with President Kerwin.

Our campaign is an effort to mitigate the growing threat of climate change, the most critical issue facing our generation. The fossil fuel industry has over 2,765 gigatons of carbon in their reserves—roughly five times the amount that the UN says is safe to burn if we want to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. In order to effectively address climate change, we must challenge the fossil fuel companies that continue to develop and operate in an unsustainable way that harms the natural systems on which we rely. The goal of the fossil fuel divestment movement is not to financially bankrupt fossil fuel corporations, but rather to politically stigmatize this industry in order to create a political context conducive to achieving meaningful climate action.

Fossil fuel divestment is rooted in the idea that American University’s investments should align with its values. AU has demonstrated its commitment to environmental sustainability through a variety of initiatives such as solar panel and green roof installations, the President’s Climate Commitment, the carbon neutrality 2020 plan and the purchase of wind-generated renewable energy credits equivalent to the university’s energy usage. We see divestment as a natural complement to these initiatives, the logical next step in AU’s path towards social and environmental responsibility. 


Nisbet, M.C. (2013). Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist. Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March. Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.