NW students unite to divest from fossil fuels

In 2007, students from Middlebury College decided to start organizing against climate change. Bill McKibben, a Harvard graduate, environmental activist, journalist, and best-selling author, joined hands with the students and 350.org was established. Currently, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere are estimated to be near 400 parts per million, 50 ppm over what scientists say is a safe, livable level for species on our planet (hence the name 350.org).

To raise awareness and inspire action on the issue, Bill McKibben launched his “Do the Math Tour” to call for universities, governments, and other institutions to divest from fossil fuels and begin moving us back toward safe CO2 levels. Check out more information at gofossilfree.org

Divestment can be a successful tool for driving social change. During Apartheid in South Africa, students from 155 college campuses organized to move their school’s investments away from multinational companies that did business in South Africa. The colleges were joined by state, county, and city governments, and the economic pressure from this divestment helped to bring down the Apartheid regime. Today, social, environmental, and economic injustices are the driving factors inspiring organizers on their quest to divest from fossil fuel companies. 

In the fall of 2014, 350.org teamed up with the Divestment Student Network (DSN) and the California Student Sustainability Coalition to bring students from 75 college campuses nationwide for a convergence in San Francisco. I was able to attend this gathering on behalf of Portland State. We were encouraged to dig deep, link up, and take action. DSN is a power organization that seeks to organize students around the U.S., build regional networks across the country to support campus campaigns, and empower collective action on climate change. 

DSN organizes a series of trainings to build these regional networks. Earlier this month, Portland joined Boston, Philadelphia, and Claremont in hosting regional trainings. Students from Oregon, Washington, and Montana who are working on fossil fuel divestment campaigns participated in the Northwest Regional Training at Portland State University. The trainings were led by Becca Rast from 350.org, Dylan Armin from DSN, and Jess Grady-Benson and Lauren Ressler from Responsible Endowments Coalition. The trainees were introduced to DSN’s principles that outline the networks’ beliefs, reasons to organize, and plans for action. This was followed by an overview of techniques to build power on college campuses. 

Four students from Portland State participated in the training: Elyse Cogurn, Linda Hoppes, Kati Valderramma, and myself. 

The Divest Portland State campaign began last year. It has taken time to organize and research, but our momentum continues to grow.The week of trainings was very exhausting, but it was all worth it in the end. I received so much great feedback from both attendees and trainers. Most importantly, I think everyone left confident with the idea that we students have power. 

There are success stories to lean on—Pitzer College in California, Green Mountain College in Vermont, and Unity College in Maine have all committed to move their investments from fossil fuels, while Stanford has committed to divest from coal, and campaigns at universities across the nation continue to gain attention. These victories are evidence to show that the shift of power has begun. 

To learn more, get involved, or sign the petition to Divest Portland State, visit http://www.divestportlandstate.org

Alfredo Gonzalez Valenzuela is a junior environmental science major, a member of the PSU Student Sustainability Leadership Council, and a campaign organizer with Divest Portland State.