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Editorial: Using college clout to address climate

The next big thing on college campuses may be the campaign to encourage boards of trustees to eliminate investments in coal and oil companies from their endowments. When climate change activist Bill McKibben visited Amherst on Sept. 7, he said that divestment may be the most effective weapon in the fight to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus limit the heating of the planet.

Activity is particularly intense at Amherst College, where students in the Green Amherst Project are hoping to have their say at the college's board of trustees meeting on Oct. 20. They are planning a Five College meeting Monday, with a national organizer for the Responsible Endowments Coalition in attendance. They have a meeting scheduled with President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin on Sept. 28.

Next month, Amherst College is welcoming a speaker from a group called Keepers of the Mountain who will talk about the human consequences of coal mining. Rising above their famous rivalry, a student from Williams College visited Amherst last weekend to talk about starting a similar campaign.

Hampshire College adopted a new investment policy a year ago and now its endowment doesn't include any stocks in fossil fuel companies, said President Jonathan Lash. It directs investments toward companies that advance society's interests, especially in the environmental field, he said. "We're trying to send a message about what we believe in," Lash said.

We think that these campaigns can be an effective economic tool to raise awareness of climate change and mobilize public sentiment to adopt greener lifestyles. Divestment in companies doing business in South Africa played a key role in the fall of the apartheid political system there, and Hampshire College led the way in 1977, with Amherst College joining the campaign 10 years later. The language of the divestment policy the Amherst students are seeking mirrors one the college's trustees adopted against the Sudanese government in 2006.

We also like this tool because it uses market forces rather than demonstrations, and could give politicians the support necessary to anact legislation require fossil fuel companies to pay the actual cost of the disposal of their waste products. We also like the fact that Amherst College students are being positive instead of trying to point fingers at people they disagree with. They're also sensitive to the need for a college even with as healthy an endowment as Amherst has to maximize returns on its investments, in part to support the generous financial aid it provides to students.

In endorsing the divestment movement while he was in Amherst, McKibben said the solution to the climate change problem does not lie in an engineering fix, and laid the responsibility right at the door of fossil fuel companies.

"It's a greed problem, and a deeply moral issue, because the poorest people in the world do the least to contribute to it but are suffering the most," he said. "Every future generation and all the rest of creation are being endangered so that people can make more money than anyone else has made."

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