University hosts conference for fossil fuel divestment

Students, youth and community members discussed fossil fuel divestment in response to Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour.

Hailey Colwell

An environmental conference sparked ideas of social change Saturday as community members and students from across Minnesota discussed fossil fuel divestment.

More than 100 people gathered in the University of Minnesota’s Science Teaching and Student Services building Saturday for the Climate Math that Works conference. They discussed the effects of fossil fuel on the global climate and ways to push the University and other institutions to sell their stocks in fossil fuel companies.

Participants heard from speakers who contributed to past environmental activism efforts. In workshops and small groups, they brainstormed ways to push for change.

Kate Jacobson Faye, coordinator for MN350, the conference’s sponsor organization, said Minnesota’s an interesting place to talk about climate change.

“There’s quite a strong sense of responsibility and activism that gets people to take action when they feel like something’s not right,” she said.

The conference’s focus was to prepare for action rather than dive into it, Jacobson Faye said.

 “We didn’t get in too deep today; we didn’t make any major decisions,” she said, “but [it was] just an opportunity for people to come together … and even solidify just a few next steps so that we could keep the momentum going.”

The conference was also a follow-up to Bill McKibben’s Do the Math lecture. McKibben, an environmental writer and journalist, set off on his Do the Math tour the day after Election Day to address people in 21 cities about the effects of climate change.

McKibben addressed a sold-out crowd in Ted Mann Concert Hall on Friday about the effects of fossil fuel on the world’s climate.

“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they deserve to lose their social license,” McKibben said during his lecture.

He said people must burn less than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide in order to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which world leaders declared the “safe” limit for global temperature.

Fossil fuel companies now have total reserves of about five times the warming limit, McKibben said.

An intergenerational issue

McKibben also spoke about his goals for citizens to lobby colleges, universities and other institutions to divest from fossil fuel.

Jacobson Faye said though the University’s size makes it a difficult target for fossil fuel divestment, people at the conference were already planning meetings for getting a divestment movement on its feet.

“The [University] is a huge institution, and it’s probably the most challenging one in the state of Minnesota to get to divest,” she said, “and so it’ll be really great to see what goals come out of this and where we can go with it.”

About two-thirds of the 120 people who attended the conference were youth from Minnesota high schools and colleges, she said.

“It was a really exciting time to collaborate inter-generationally and across the spectrum. I don’t think we have a lot of opportunities to do that.”

University youth studies senior Patty O’Keefe worked as an intern with MN350 to get young people across the state involved in fossil fuel divestment.

O’Keefe said she’ll be working to connect the multiple student groups at the University that have shown interest in developing divestment campaigns of their own.

“It’s really all about numbers,” O’Keefe said, “and how you can show these boards of trustees and boards of regents that there is a significant sector of the student body that really, really cares about this stuff and does not want us investing in nonrenewable energy.”

She said it’s important for students to be involved in environmental action.

“They are going to be experiencing the side effects of climate change for a lot longer than older generations.”

As a high school senior at the Blake School in Minneapolis, Cole Norgaarden serves as co-chair of Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota.

He said he came to the conference to see different people discuss ecological issues.

“It’s times like these when you see people come out of the woodwork,” Norgaarden said, “and it’s just really empowering to have everybody in one place and be able to discuss things about the environment.”

He said it’s critical that youth have a voice in this discussion.

“This is a very future-based issue,” he said. “Especially when a lot of our education in school doesn’t cover this type of stuff, it’s vital that we expose ourselves to this community.”