This October, student coalition DivestNU staged a two week sit-in on Centennial Common in a public effort to pressure the Northeastern administration to divest from fossil fuel corporations that contribute to the global climate crisis. Students staged a 24/7 occupation, camping out in tents and, on their last day, holding a mock oil spill and a die-in demonstration on Prospective Students Day. Chief among the group’s concerns is the apparent hypocrisy of Northeastern investing $25 million in what’s been labeled “sustainability funding,” while simultaneously refusing to divest its endowment from corporations such as Exxon Mobil. NUPR’s Aren LeBrun joined the encampment to speak with two student leaders about why the fight for climate justice cannot be postponed any longer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
So, first to start, tell me about your group itself. Who is – or are – DivestNU?
Gabby Thurston (Psychology, 2018): Divest is a coalition of student groups on campus. It’s a whole array of students who care about a lot of different issues. That’s what divesting is all about. It’s not just a green issue, it’s not just about the environment. It’s about people’s human rights that are being violated in a variety of ways. Some examples of our coalition members are the Feminist Student Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Progressive Student Alliance. They’ve all been out here with us, chanting with us, helping us with blankets and food. We really couldn’t do it without their support. It’s been instrumental.
Why does divesting from the fossil fuel industry matter?
Austin Williams (Environmental Studies & Political Science, 2017): The cruel irony of climate change is that the folks who’ve contributed the least to the problem are those who are going to be hit first and hardest by its impacts. So when we talk about climate justice, we’re really talking about how to rethink about climate change itself. We don’t consider this to be a “green” or an “environmental” issue, but rather a justice issue. We want to focus the conversation on climate change around real, tangible human rights impacts that are already being felt around the world to underscore why we have a moral imperative to do all that we can to tackle the fossil fuel industry and the role that it plays in blocking climate solutions.
GT: Our stance on divestment is that the University is investing money in an industry that is directly blocking climate change research, sustainability research. So for us to be putting money into sustainability research but also funding an industry that’s blocking it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.
And so about the protest here today, what are some of the goals you have to bring to the Northeastern administration?
GT: So, our first goal is to get them to sit down and have a conversation with us. We’re disappointed with the way they’ve been so far. We haven’t really had any interaction with them. They haven’t shown interest in participating in any real discussion on the issue. And they even attempted to co-opt what we’re doing here as a demonstration that “Northeastern supports this kind of action amongst its students,” when in reality they’re not showing us that they support the sort of social action we are demanding.
Can you explain the tents and the location choice? Why Centennial?
AW: There are a couple of reasons why we chose to tent out in the central quad here as a tactic. First of all, our campaign is standing in solidarity with the millions of folks who are already losing their homes due to the impacts of climate change. There’s a functional purpose, obviously, in that we’re able to sleep here at night. But primarily, you know, it’s a great way for us to be visible on campus and to carry this conversation to the student body. What we’ve been doing here is holding conversations with these students over not only why we target the fossil fuel industry with our divestment campaign, but to make sure that they understand the history on their own campus in terms of how their administration has dealt with this question.
I know that in a July newsletter the University released its plan to spend $25 million on sustainability funding. Given that there’ve been no attempts yet to divest from the fossil fuel industry, how does your group feel about that particular investment strategy?
AW: We described it as taking a step forward and a big step back. Under normal circumstances, we’d have loved to champion the fact that our University was taking an active step forward in reinvestment into the solutions for tomorrow. Unfortunately, they chose to, in that statement, frame divestment as a retreat from global challenges and to frame divestment from fossil fuels and active reinvestment in renewables as mutually exclusive options. That’s not a logic that we buy. We think it’s a false dichotomy to pit these solutions against each other. We think that they should actually be part of a more comprehensive climate package.
Was it frustrating not to be involved in that decision making process? Tell me what it felt like to read that newsletter.
AW: Oh, for sure. The broader issue that we have with their decision in July was the fact that the senior leadership team of this administration chose to box-out student leaders from our campaign and from Student Government Administration (SGA) in the decision making process for coming to this answer. It was released in July in the form of a press release at Northeastern, their in-house publication, and we think that releasing this news over the summer in a format that they have very tight control over was a very deliberate decision to manage the ways in which people perceived their actions. If you take a look at the press release that they put out, it’s interesting what sort of language they chose to rely on. They framed the fossil fuel divestment movement – which is active on over 500 campuses in the United States – as a movement for “environmental sustainability,” which really avoids the crux of the question we’re asking, which is whether or not it’s appropriate for our institutions to legitimize this rogue industry.
What is SGA’s role in all this? Are they on your side in terms of putting pressure on the University administration?
AW: I think that question is really relative to who occupies the office and the sort of work that they put in to build power for student advocacy on campus. The fact that the administration signs off on the constitution of the SGA means they accept, to some degree, that the student body should be able to advocate for itself and that they should have a role in the direction of our institution. And we take that as a sign that it’s appropriate for us to be speaking out about these issues and making sure that these values do get a fair shake. And I will say that it’s not easy, you know? Definitely there are hurdles that folks within SGA face. And I think the primary question there is what compromises folks in the student government are willing to make – or not willing to make – in their pursuit of advocacy on behalf of the student body. But, ultimately, I think there’s the potential to do a lot more.
Do you know where the student body as a whole stands right now in terms of the divestment campaign?
AW: So, on [October 4] a group of senators from the DivestNU coalition introduced an emergency Senate resolution affirming the student body’s vote in favor of fossil fuel divestment and supporting the work that DivestNU is doing. And that’s something we’re really proud of that came out organically and had so many different groups represented: the Northeastern Black Student Association, the Feminist Organization, the Students for Justice in Palestine, the Husky Environmental Action Team, and the Progressive Student Alliance all joined together to introduce this resolution. And we think that speaks pretty heavily to the multitude of students we have supporting our cause.
GT: And what that means is there’s going to be a letter sent to the administration. So that’s a giant opportunity for them, the administration, to address this issue. And like I said before, it shows that there are tons of students on Northeastern’s campus who care about climate justice and want to pressure the University to take corrective action.
What populations do you see being affected the most by climate change? Why is your campaign so urgent?
AW: If you look at developing nations around the world, these are nations that don’t have as many resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change… folks who are more vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis. As well, countries in the Global South, generally speaking, are more vulnerable to climate impacts. We’re talking about droughts in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re talking about major, disastrous coastal flooding in South Asia. And that’s why you’ve seen so many cultural groups on campus who have real connections to these communities speak out and say, “Actually, climate change is an issue that impacts us. It’s not just a ‘special interest issue’ for environmentalists. This is something that we all need to address and tackle together.”