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America’s campus crackdowns send a chilling message on climate divestment

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 6 min read

Is it 1968 again?

The student protests which have spread across America have left many with a feeling that history is, if not repeating itself, then certainly stuck in an ugly half-rhyme. 

The response to the 2024 protests is every bit as chilling as its forebears. Freedom of speech and peaceful protest are human rights that must be protected for all. Militarised policing – cavalry, armoured vehicles, stun guns and chemical weapons turned on unarmed young people – is a terrifying abuse of state power. That needs no further explication here.

American attitudes to Israel/Palestine, on the other hand, are horribly complex. I am not pretending to reduce it to one thing. I am also going to keep my own opinion on what is happening in Gaza out of this piece. That is not because I do not have a strong conviction, nor am I afraid to take a public stand. Rather, I want to highlight how one specific element here speaks directly to climate activism. 

In this way, I hope that whatever your opinions on Gaza, we can all agree that there is a principle worth defending.

A case study in divestment politics

The campus protests, which have spread to 50+ American institutions and led to 2,300+ arrests as I write, began at Columbia University. They began as an argument over divestment. 

The Columbia University Apartheid Divest organisation (CUAD) is a student coalition which lobbied university leadership to divest from companies who sell arms or support to the Israeli army. It has won the support of 60-75% of students in referenda since 2020. 

In December 2023, CUAD’s proposal was submitted to Columbia’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, which (somewhat spuriously) rejected it. The subsequent protests escalated when Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik asked the NYPD to clear them out. 

The rest is violence. In terms of climate, the obvious echoes are to Standing Rock, the Wet’suwet’en blockades, and other examples of militarised police attacking peaceful, mostly indigenous protestors to protect fossil interests. It also reminds me of the UK’s “oppressive and wrong” (Parliament’s own words) Police and Crime Bill in response to Extinction Rebellion.

But let’s stick with the divestment issue. This intriguing analysis by Adam Tooze – an outstanding economist and Columbia faculty member – sheds some light on an opaque set of incentives. Columbia is a $5.8 billion financial powerhouse, and undergraduate tuition makes up only 3.25% of the university’s annual revenue. Its government grant funding is much greater at over $1.2 billion, whilst its alumni donor pool includes 2.3% of all US senior executives and 19 billionaires (such as the vocally pro-Israel Robert Kraft). 

But all that pales against a $15 billion dollar endowment, mostly locked in (underperforming) private investments. As Tooze points it, the public assets that CUAD want divested are a tiny proportion of the whole, whilst the administrative response endangers the entire Columbia brand:

A small group of students camped on one lawn, in a very large university complex, calling for relatively minor financial rearrangements in a baggy and poorly managed endowment, are turned by the repressive action of the University administration under pressure from politicians and donors, into a global news story…It is a case study in panicked control freakery gone wrong.

In terms of financial stewardship, the administration’s response makes no sense. But what if we read it as a study in financial politics instead?

The crisis of liberalism

In this punchy London Review of Books account, Gareth Fearn explains this moment as a flare-up of the crisis of liberalism.

Liberalism has two core components: the protection of property rights and a notion of negative freedom grounded in human rights and political checks and balances. What we are now seeing in the US (and the UK, and elsewhere in Europe) is the defence of the former at the expense of the latter

I would go further: the divestment conflict has birthed an inverted chimera of liberalism. This is not about defending property rights; it is denying the freedom not to own a particular (protected) class of property. The state will enforce the duty of students to purchase shares in weapons manufacturers at the point of a billy club.

If that sounds insane, consider it as a problem of entanglement. The original 1968 protests were sparked by the discovery of Columbia’s affiliation with the Institutional Defence Analyses (IDA), a DoD thinktank, at the height of the Vietnam war – a single point of connection easily severed. By contrast, the divestments the CUAD are demanding involve the world’s biggest publicly listed companies: Microsoft, Amazon, and Google (e.g. the billion-dollar Project Nimbus) alongside defence, industrials, and the Blackrock funds that own them. Once we start drawing ethical/ESG lines around blue-chip companies, where might it end? 

Pick your problem –environmental crises offer plenty of starting points – and you’ll discover complicity topping all the world’s major indices. And as our dilemmas are revealed as increasingly systemic, divestment turns from a scalpel into a bulldozer. It threatens the core of modern oligopolistic markets themselves. 

The complications of climate 

Could we be forced to continue owning chunks of the fossil fuel complex? We already are, if we look at patterns of taxpayer-funded government holding and support for extractive industries. And the state of California has already forced the shareholders of insurers to write unprofitable business – to book a loss – because it failed to manage wildfires. Authorities are very resistant to being disentangled from financial power. 

By contrast, we know divestment can work. In 1985, student protests at Columbia forced the administration to divest from entangled blue-chips like Coca-Cola, Ford and AmEx (4% of its portfolio) in a stand against South African Apartheid. The wider movement that followed is credited with forcing the regime to the negotiating table. 

Since then, Columbia’s students have successfully pushed the university to divest from tobacco, Sudan/Darfur, private prisons, and…fossil fuels. But pulling out of coal companies is one thing; recognising the entanglement of Big Tech and all manner of industrial service firms in war – let alone the broader climate crisis – is another. Nor can it be a short-term negotiating tactic as it was in the mid-80s. Climate divestment is forever. 

Divestment is by no means a slam-dunk. There are trade-offs and unintended consequences that require careful consideration. Brown University successfully defused its student protests the other week by promising to hold a vote on divestment in October, which sounds reasonable. 

What is not reasonable is the idea that exercising your right to sell could be denied altogether. I hope that is something we can all agree on.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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