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  • Writer's pictureEllida Parker

Light Dawns on Sunrise Columbia

Post-divestment, students look to campus again in the fight for climate activism.

By Ellida Parker

Every Wednesday at 8 p.m., members of Columbia’s newly revived chapter of the Sunrise Movement file into a windowless choir room along one of Lerner’s maze-like back hallways. Usually, there are a few new faces in the small, masked group. Sunrise is up and running again—the word is slowly getting out, and students who are anxious about climate are showing up.

Before the pandemic, Sunrise Columbia was part of a powerful coordinated effort of campus climate activists demanding Columbia’s divestment from fossil fuels—an effort that included hunger strikes and a days-long sit-in outside of President Bollinger’s office. In January 2020, Columbia responded to the activists’ demands by announcing a formal policy of non-investment in fossil fuels.

Two months after this announcement, the pandemic sent Columbia into a period of remote learning that lasted for more than a year. Students returning to campus this past fall found little climate organizing to speak of.

“It felt like there was a real gap in terms of a climate activism community on campus,” says Eveline Mol, BC ’23, one of the founders of the new Sunrise chapter. Shortly before the winter holidays, she messaged the Columbia Sunrise Facebook saying she was hoping to revive the group. Grace Gorant, CC ’22, who ran social media for the group before the pandemic, saw her message and offered to help.

Throughout the fall, students had been messaging the Facebook account asking how they could get involved. This isn’t surprising—climate anxiety is rampant among college-age people.

“People need a way to engage with this issue. Otherwise they start shutting down, because it can be completely overwhelming without outlets like activism,” said Gorant. “The challenge is figuring out how we can make climate something that people not only know about and worry about, but internalize as something that they matter to—something they can try to make their best impact on, whether that works or not.”

Even without a pandemic, sustaining productive activism on campus has its logistical challenges. For starters, people are busy. Developing strategy and taking concrete action involves significant time—and especially on a campus like Columbia’s, such time can feel hard to come by. Another challenge is that students are only on this campus for four years, a relatively short window to learn the ins and outs of campus organizing: how and where to put pressure on the administration, which faculty members to turn to for guidance, and which groups to collaborate with.

Illustration by Betel Tadesse

Usually, learning the ropes is made easier by the guidance of older members of campus organizations, who pass down institutional knowledge and pre-established organizational structure to new classes of activists. But the pandemic interrupted this passing of the torch: When students returned to campus this year, The Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion chapters had dissolved; their former leaders graduated before training new leadership.

Students approaching climate activism now are doing so without the institutional memory, community, or organizational structure that they otherwise might have inherited. In a sense, they’re starting from scratch, hoping to rebuild what was once a strong and coordinated climate effort on campus. The question is: what now? What does campus climate activism look like when the old rallying cry—divestment—has, at least on the surface, been answered?

One obvious area of focus for campus activism is national politics. However, the scale of the climate crisis demands that we take action at all levels of government and in all communities, including local ones. It is generally wise for activists to demand action from the targets that are most accessible to them. Right now, the sphere where campus climate groups have the most potential for serious influence is Columbia itself.

This is something that political science professor Page Fortna, who leads the recently formed faculty working group Columbia Combustion Zero, is acutely aware of. When it comes to advocating for action on the national, city-wide, or campus level, “it has to be all of the above,” she says. “But part of why I wanted to focus at least a little bit of my activism on Columbia is that I feel like I have more say in what Columbia does than what New York City or the United States does.”

In the grand scheme of things, Columbia’s contribution to global emissions may seem insignificant. No divestment policy of the University is going to transform the international energy sector. Even eliminating all campus carbon emissions wouldn’t make a dent in global carbon emissions. What matters more is the symbolic weight of Columbia’s actions.

“The climate crisis is, at its foundation, a crisis of values,” wrote senior Earth Institute faculty member Michael Gerrard in a 2019 divestment policy proposal. “Columbia’s divestment will be a powerful symbol from one of the most prodigious and influential institutions in the world that values have finally started to change, and the possible impact of that symbol on other institutions, companies, and world leaders should not be dismissed.”

Beyond just the impact on other institutions, the urgency with which Columbia takes climate action bears on its educational mission, says Professor Jason Smerdon, an Earth Institute faculty member and the co-director of the undergraduate Sustainable Development program.

“For me to teach students about the importance of sustainability and then have them go out and operate on a campus that's not sustainable—that sends a message. It says that what’s being taught in the classroom isn’t as important as what happens in the ‘real world,’ or that there are financial considerations that should supersede the ethical and moral considerations of sustainability.”

In short, activists must continue to push for ever more ambitious university action to reduce emissions and confront the impacts of the climate crisis. But figuring out how to do so is complicated by the fact that, on the surface, Columbia appears to be doing relatively well when it comes to climate action. In 2017, the University released its first-ever sustainability plan, to be implemented by 2020. Plan 2030 followed, in which writers outlined a range of goals and plans intended to ensure that Columbia’s campus reaches net-zero emissions by 2050. Columbia formally committed to divestment from thermal coal in 2017, and to a non-investment policy for oil and gas companies in January of 2020.

These commitments came as the hard-won products of years of coordinated and driven activism by faculty members and student groups—primarily the now-dissolved Extinction Rebellion chapter. Through hunger strikes and a massive sit-in in President Bollinger’s office, students risked their health and student status to demonstrate the severity of their demands to Columbia.

At the beginning of this year, climate activism on campus looked very different–in fact, it was almost nonexistent. The University’s answer to students’ call for divestment, along with a year and a half of remote learning, led to the dissolution of the strong momentum that had existed before.

While the University’s actions are good first steps, these first steps do not warrant complacency. The reality of the climate crisis—the threat of mass extinction and the loss of millions of lives—means that no amount of action should be enough to warrant slowing down activism efforts.

“Schools are able to quiet people down by making big announcements like these,” says Arjun Shreekumar, one of the leaders of the Center for Energy and Environment at Columbia’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. Students at the Center for Energy and Environment spent all of last semester researching what they see as ambiguities or potential loopholes in the divestment agreement.

The main area of concern for the Roosevelt Institute has to do with the wording of Columbia’s policy. Columbia committed to “not make new investments in private funds that primarily invest in oil and gas companies.” But the word “primarily” is never explicitly defined. Therefore, through investments in financial instruments like mutual funds, portions of Columbia's endowment may or may not still support companies that profit from the fossil fuel industry.

Because Columbia’s investment holdings are not made publicly available, there is no way for outsiders to ascertain the extent to which this is the case. While the competitive nature of investing might make it unrealistic to expect Columbia to make its investment information publicly available, it would not be unreasonable to ask for third-party analysis of where the money in its endowment is actually going.

Divestment recommendations for the current policy were made to Columbia’s Investment Management Fund by the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, based partly on a proposal submitted by Extinction Rebellion and other Columbia University students. The ACSRI is also the body responsible for overseeing the continued implementation of the policy.

“The transition to net zero is both complex and evolving, and the ACSRI committee continues to work on refining the process for ensuring that the divestment policy is properly implemented,” said Professor Bruce Usher, chair of the ACSRI, in an email.

In their final position on fossil fuel divestment, the ACSRI explains why they recommended partial and not full divestment. The writers posit that “through complete divestment, Columbia will lose its ability to influence fossil fuel companies’ management by engagement and proxy voting.” They argue that allowing for partial indirect investment, or investment in oil and gas companies who have a credible plan for transitioning to net-zero by 2050, allows Columbia to have a positive influence on investment managers who might otherwise not concern themselves with climate justice. It’s unclear whether stockholder engagement of this kind actually works, or how much of this engagement is being actively pursued by the University.

According to Columbia’s final divestment policy, Columbia’s Investment Management Company will “expand its evaluation of its investment managers to “assess whether managers have established plans to create portfolios with net zero emissions by 2050.” It does not bind the IMC to any sort of action based on that expanded evaluation. The policy also states that “Columbia ultimately seeks opportunities to use the capabilities of its Investment Management Company, the Climate School and other parts of the institution in further developing these plans.”

Involving Columbia’s climate experts in investment manager decisions about developing climate-friendly portfolios sounds like an excellent plan. However, two years after the announcement of the divestment policy, it’s unclear how or when this strategy will be implemented.

“What activists should ask for is a plan for that,” says Smerdon. “What does that actually entail? Is it just that Columbia sees plans for this through some vision quest? Or are they actually thinking about specifics for making that happen?”

The implementation of the divestment agreement deserves attention by activists, says Smerdon—but he says he would encourage activists not to fixate too much on this dimension of Columbia’s climate responsibilities. “I think divestment is a really important issue, but I don't think that our imagination should stop there. I think we should be calling for urgent action by Columbia in a lot of areas.”

Smerdon says a priority of climate groups should be educating themselves on the details of Plan 2030, and keeping pressure on the administration to implement the goals in the plan.

Plan 2030 does incorporate mechanisms for accountability and certification: in it, Columbia commits to submitting its emissions data in accordance with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol to the Climate Registry, a nonprofit that collects and organizes emissions data from organizations and institutions like Columbia, with the goal of promoting transparency and credibility around emissions reductions commitments.

Plan 2030 is guided by “science-based targets”—global emission reduction targets that climate scientists have deemed necessary for meeting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The Plan was designed with input from Earth Institute faculty members and with guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Considering the urgency of this crisis, a plan that commits to these bare-minimum goals shouldn’t be celebrated as bold or remarkable action. There was broad consensus that the Paris Agreement did not commit countries to the kind of action that would be needed to stop the worst effects of climate change. So why is that the benchmark that Columbia—which casts itself as a leader on climate—now uses?

“The plan is carbon neutrality by 2050, and the University would argue that that’s consistent with the science-based targets to stay under a degree and a half. That’s great. But why not be more urgent about it? Why not act more swiftly? Why not be a leader on the issue as opposed to following science-based targets?” questioned Smerdon.

This particular line of thinking is the premise of the new faculty working group organized by Fortna. The decision to call the group Columbia Combustion Zero as opposed to Columbia net-zero speaks to the group’s broader goal: pressing Columbia for more urgent action than the university is currently pursuing. The goal of net-zero is oriented around offsetting carbon emissions, whereas the goal of combustion zero is eliminating emissions entirely.

One metric of the University’s sustainability performance is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System. STARs is a reporting framework and accountability tool in which colleges and universities across the country are given scores based on their performance in a range of sustainability categories. Fortna pointed out that while Columbia received high scores in the academic categories (they just founded a Climate School, after all) it received low scores across the board on the operations and facilities categories. (For example, it scored a 1.96 out of 6 in the Building Energy Consumption categories, and a .11 out of 4 in the Clean and Renewable Energy category.)

STARs is a useful system in that it allows straightforward comparison between Columbia and its peer institutions. “I think that to the extent that we can get these institutions to compete with one another, that’s a good thing, right? All these schools care about what the others are doing. If we can get Columbia to do more, that affects the other institutions, too,” says Fortna.

Compared to other universities, Columbia’s operational goals are not particularly impressive. Fortna specifically pointed to Brown University. Brown’s climate plan commits to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040. Their plan also sets interim goals that are much more aggressive than Columbia’s—specifically, a goal to cut campus emissions by 75% by 2025. Fortna says that when her group raised Brown’s plan with Sustainable Columbia—the office that oversees coordination and implementation of the University’s climate initiatives—the response was that Brown’s goals were unrealistic, and unlikely to be achieved.

“On the operations side, there’s always this tension between setting aspirational targets and targets that people think are achievable,” says Smerdon. “What’s complicated about that is sometimes, setting goals that are aspirational actually increases the rate at which you achieve the goals that you think are achievable, right?”

This particular tension between “aspirational” and “achievable” goals has defined the international response to climate change. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that institutions like Columbia have the capacity to mobilize tons of resources and funding to meet the moment when they absolutely need to. The pandemic was a threat to the lives of students in 2020, and Columbia—like so much of the world—shut down its operations to prevent loss of life.

Current circumstances and efforts suggest that climate change will undoubtedly lead to mass displacement and loss of life. But unlike Covid, climate change does not present an immediate threat to the day-to-day operations of Columbia. The lack of immediate pressure has long been the central difficulty of garnering momentum for climate action: It’s hard to mobilize energy to confront a problem when the most severe consequences of that problem are yet to come. This risk of short-term thinking and complacency is all the more reason for activists to keep the pressure turned up, and to keep energy high around the life or death issue that is climate change.

“I think the administration really wants to do this, but they’re not willing to put a huge amount of money into doing it quickly,” says Fortna. “And that’s where I think pressure would help: If students and faculty were saying, this is outrageous—we’ve positioned ourselves as this great leader on climate and we’re not leading, we’re not walking the walk—then this could be made a higher priority. More funds could be put towards it, and it could happen faster.”

Last month, the University released Plan 2030’s year one progress report. The report celebrated some of the sustainability efforts made in the past year, including the University’s September announcement that future campus constructions will be fossil free, and the beginning of electrification studies meant to identify pathways to convert energy sources across campuses from fossil fuels to renewable electric energy.

Once again, these are promising commitments. But it’s fair to be skeptical of such commitments. Plenty of nations, companies and institutions have made similarly promising commitments, but very few have been actualized. These commitments are not legally binding, and there are few consequences for failing to uphold them, aside from public outcry. That’s why keeping up public pressure matters so much.

At Columbia, this means pressuring the University for transparency about just how aggressively they are pursuing climate targets. “These are not the sexy questions to be asking, but how much money is Columbia investing in these [climate] goals? How are they going to finance these things in the future? What are their budget considerations as they think about this? And when you look at some of the big ticket items, like electrifying the heating and cooling, when is that going to happen?” questioned Smerdon.

The immediate challenge ahead is forming a climate coalition on campus, and rallying students and faculty behind an effort to hold Columbia accountable to its existing commitments as well as pressing the University for more urgent action. “There are people who want to take action, but it’s very disparate. I feel like if students start making noise, people will come together around it,” said Fortna. She hopes that her group can provide institutional memory to the movement, and be the liaison between “noisy activism that students can bring” and “behind-the-scenes institutional change.”

Regardless of the direction climate activism on campus takes from here, there is inherent value in building a strong, united, and coordinated climate coalition on campus, if only because it lets the University know that people care and are paying attention. At the very least, it will bring together people who care about climate action.

“There’s doom-and-gloom in all of this,” said Gorant. “But if we can make meaningful communities out of it, then at the very least we have the feeling that something okay might happen in the end.”


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