Panel pushes for Duke fossil fuel divestment

Nov. 14, 2013 @ 09:52 PM

Increasingly warmer days. Melting the entirety of the North Pole. An irreversible environmental impact, with the poorest countries of the world suffering the most.

Divest Duke, the student group pushing Duke University to remove its investments from the fossil fuel industry, listened to a panel of climate change scholars and divestment activists bring up these bleak climate trajectory details Thursday night.

“The longer we wait, the more painful and expensive it will become in the future,” said Rob Jackson, chair of global environmental change within Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The conversation shouldn’t be about irreversible aspects of climate change, Jackson added, but that “there’s a lot of things we can do to slow it.”

About 30 students and Duke employees were in the audience at Love Auditorium on campus, asking why and if divestment was necessary.

Divest Duke students don’t know how many fossil fuel companies have ties to the university - Duke’s investments aren’t transparent. But the student group plans to submit a divestment proposal to Duke President Richard Brodhead and the university’s investment responsibility committee within the next two weeks.

“There is a lot of power that these companies have and divestment is speaking the language of money, which is what they’re more likely to hear,” said Sammy Slade, outreach coordinator for the nonprofit NC WARN. The organization tracks Duke Energy practices and advocates for a state transition to clean power generation.

“It’s a matter of asking and pushing and pressuring them to do the right thing,” Slade said.

Steve Wiley brought his personal recollections of campus divestment activism to the table. He is now an associate professor at N.C. State, but when he attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania as an undergrad, he was part of the student movement to get Swarthmore to divest from companies doing business in South Africa, a direct stand against apartheid. The college divested in 1986.

“It’s not really enough to try and do better on the individual level,” Wiley said. “You need a structural change, and that can only come about through a push for a radically different approach.”

Wiley and other divestment supporters had used visual tactics around Swarthmore’s campus in the ‘80s: They reenacted police brutality in the dining hall. They set up shanty towns on the college’s front lawn. Some students even occupied the president’s office.

If Duke were to divest from fossil fuel companies, the university could reinvest its money into companies that work specifically in energy efficiency, power generation or sustainable agriculture, said Chris Demotropoulos, who works in sustainable and responsible investing as part of Trillium Asset Management LLC’s Durham office.

“Divestment is really a way to rip the Band-Aid off,” Demotropoulos said.