Divest UMaine is a coalition of student, faculty, staff and alumni from throughout the University of Maine System, who have joined the international movement to divest schools, cities and other institutions from the fossil fuel industry. The logic behind divestment is powerful and simple: The fossil fuel industry is actively planning to extract and burn five times more carbon than we can afford to emit and still keep average global temperature rise under 2 degrees C, the level agreed on by world governments to prevent catastrophic climate change. The business model of the fossil fuel industry will cause us to overshoot our carbon budget five times over. Divesting is a way to strip these companies of their unparalleled political power— power they are using to lock the world into escalating climate change. Divestment is a potent tactic for organizing our communities around the need to curb carbon emissions. But in order to strike at the true causes of climate change, divestment must be about more than just carbon emissions.
Floods, droughts, extreme temperatures, extreme storms— every day we bear witness to the fact that climate change is the reality of our times. Given the overwhelming evidence that our window for reversing climate change is dangerously small, it is easy to conclude that our use of carbon is the most pressing issue facing humanity. It’s easy to argue that climate change carries the trump card when it comes to social and environmental issues, and that we must drop everything to fight it. In reality, the systems that cause climate change are the same systems we must struggle against in our movements for social justice. No one benefits from ranking issues of justice. We must work together to find common cause.
When we place carbon emissions at the center of our struggle to stop climate change, we risk creating “solutions” that are controlled by the elite, solutions which do nothing to undermine root causes like racism, classism and economic exploitation of people and the environment. Climate justice is a movement lead by people at the front lines of the climate crisis— people directly experiencing the devastation caused by our current energy system, usually people of color, indigenous people, and poor people. The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) is just one example of a group doing this kind of organizing. CJA is “rooted in Indigenous, African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and working-class white communities throughout the U.S.” CJA advocates for community-owned energy systems, and a just transition to local living economies.
Divestment is not inherently a tactic for climate justice, but it can be, if we use it as a platform to elevate the voices of those at the front lines. It can be a tactic for climate justice if we choose to focus on who is most impacted by carbon emissions, not just on the numbers. Part of CJA’s vision includes reparations— calling for solutions that “make amends for the historic responsibilities for the crises we face, from over-consumption of ‘atmospheric space’ by the Western Industrialized counties to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” Carbon pollution has mostly been perpetrated by Western Industrialized nations, and yet the poorer nations of the global south will be hit hardest by climate change. When divestment is a tactic for climate justice, it means we are committed to addressing these deep inequities underlying the climate crisis.
Divest UMaine has been making great strides in elevating the issue of climate change in our university community. Students have gathered close to 1,000 signatures of support. They have organized events and film screenings. At the University of Southern Maine, students organized to pass a student senate resolution calling for divestment. They also organized with students responding to the budget cuts to produce a Student Vision for the University that included responsible investing. In February, Divest UMaine students met with the University of Maine System Investment Committee and made a presentation that garnered significant press coverage.
All of the exciting successes of the last year are only the beginning. Students know that divestment might take many years, and that divestment isn’t even the end goal. The end goal is a more vibrant organizing culture on our campuses, and a university community that is awakened to the principles of climate justice. We must work to hold ourselves accountable to this vision every step along the way.
When the University of Maine divested from Apartheid South Africa in 1982, we set a precedent that the morality of where we invest our money matters. We also set an example— that when students get organized, we have the power to change the way our institution operates. We have the power to make changes in our schools, and in political systems that are indifferent to suffering, oppression and exploitation. Today, we must organize together to assert that an energy system that is built on the exploitation of people and the planet is wrong. An energy system that treats people and communities as expendable is wrong. We must organize to divest for climate justice.
Written by: Meaghan Lasala
Published in Spring 2014 MPAC Newsletter