Here’s How Students Can Choose — and Create — a Sustainable University
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- Fossil Free Research Board Chair Ilana Cohen's four minimums a school should meet for being sustainable are divestment, fossil-free research, fossil-free careers, and reinvestment into just environmental practices.
- Many schools have divested fossil fuels from their endowments, but they will still keep their climate research and events funded by fossil fuel companies.
- Community is the best way to get involved with climate activism — by learning from other students and organizing events.
As the urgency of climate change soars, students are looking more at colleges advancing climate activism.
Students who want to impact climate policies have two options: They can choose to apply to colleges with strong environmental records, or they can increase their activism to change how their institutions approach climate issues.
BestColleges spoke with Ilana Cohen, board chair and co-founder of Fossil Free Research (FFR), to learn more about how students can approach climate change in higher education.
Cohen is a senior at Harvard University studying social studies and philosophy, focusing on the ethics of climate change and environmental policymaking. In her role at FFR, she helps coordinate student efforts to expose and dismantle the fossil fuel industry's influence on climate research.
FFR recently collaborated with Data for Progress to release a data report, which found that 27 universities received over $677 million between 2010 and 2020 from the fossil fuel industry. FFR combed through university IRS 990 forms, foundation reports, school databases, school reports, and news sources to gather and analyze data.
Here are Cohen's ideas for students looking to increase their environmental activism, whether they're looking to choose a green college or move their institutions toward more sustainable behavior.
Get Involved on Campus
When Cohen got to Harvard in 2018, she discovered that one of the country's longest divestment campaigns had nearly ceased to exist.
"All the organizers that just graduated out. There was lost momentum," said Cohen. "That's really a conventional struggle for campus-based campaigns is that when the leaders per se graduate, there's often a drop in energy."
She found a sense of disillusionment among the students, but she and a couple of peers banded together to revive the campaign because she said it had so much promise.
"To get Harvard to pledge to divest would clearly send such a powerful signal about the need to cut off the social license to the fossil fuel industry," said Cohen.
Three years later, Harvard's divestment would catalyze the movement around the nation.
"I always think that students should look to join existing groups before just creating new ones because it's very important to honor the communities that are already in place and working, and because collective power is really important for achieving campaign wins," said Cohen.
Recognize — and Call Out — Greenwashing
Greenwashing is when public-facing fossil fuel companies, banks, and corporations say they are acting on climate while funding or enabling the crisis.
A typical method is fossil fuel-sponsored research and climate initiatives. The initiative may look neutral but still serves the companies' oil and gas production goals.
"When universities allow fossil fuel companies to buy and advertise connections to university research on key climate and energy issues, they provide these companies with much-needed scientific and cultural legitimacy," FFR and Data for Progress' report on fossil fuels in academia said.
Cohen said students need to ask:
- Who's sponsoring the research?
- What's it being used for and how is it being framed by the university and by the sponsors?
- Is this a real climate solution being aimed at?
- Is there a serious reason to think this might be part of a greenwashing operation?
"Always follow the money," Cohen said. "Whenever you see a climate initiative on campus, particularly for research, but also for speaking events and other programs, it's really important to look at who is funding that program and who is a part of it."
Campus sustainability practices are often used as conventional sustainability metrics to distract from universities' outsize power and influence to support the fossil fuel industry, Cohen said. The challenge comes from asking universities to divorce themselves from direct ties to the fossil fuel industry.
"It's very easy again for schools to be like, 'Look, we just built our first windmill on campus, or we're having meatless Mondays,' but then totally ignore the ways they're using their very societally influential levers of power to sustain the fossil fuel industry's core business model," she said.
Transform Higher Ed at the Institutional Level
Cohen told BestColleges that there isn't a straight answer to finding an intersection of a big-name university and a climate conscious one.
Sustainability understandably may not be at the top of students' priorities like financial aid, scholarships, and where you can go with a degree from your school, Cohen said. But it's clear to her that more and more high school students are factoring fossil fuel research into their college decisions, something that didn't exist when she applied five years ago.
She said thinking about your role as a community member in whatever university you attend is essential.
"You're now a stakeholder in holding that institution accountable for its promises," she said.
Cohen felt responsible for leveraging her privilege as a Harvard student to speak out about climate solution implementation and hold the university accountable to its commitments to climate action.
"Whether you go to a small liberal arts school, a large public university, or a very elite university, that always remains the case," she said.
Some institutions are more willing to move than others. It depends on how closely tied your university is to the fossil fuel industry and the university's history of willingness to engage in democratic community decision-making.
Students shouldn't feel discouraged by even the most stubborn-appearing universities.
"There isn't always a reason to assume from the outside that there's no possibility of working with the university administration," she said. "And there are cases where it is a question of what issue you're working on that may dictate how a university responds."
To impact change, Cohen and FFR have outlined the four minimum requirements students' respective institutions should meet:
"That's sort of obvious," said Cohen, "but at this point in time, a university is a serious laggard if it has not committed to phase out any existing fossil fuel investments in its endowment."
She told BestColleges that universities should divest within the next decade, on par with the rapid progression of climate science. Harvard is failing by that metric since they don't have any clear timeframe, she said.
Fossil fuel divestment is an actionable way for institutions to combat climate change by removing investments in their endowments from fossil fuel companies.
The goal of divestment is to remove the social license for fossil fuel companies to continue to operate and extract as if their business model was not inherently set to burn and flood our planet, Lindsay Meiman of Stand.earth, a climate activism global network, previously told BestColleges.
The most notable schools to divest from fossil fuels are Harvard University, Columbia University, and the California State University system.
Cohen emphasized fossil-free research as the next battleground for climate activism. The movement is the first systematic effort to address the influence of the fossil-fuel industry on climate research, which influences public discourse, media policy, and public policy.
"There is this whole insidious world of fossil fuel-funded research at universities that are helping not only greenwash these companies' reputations," said Cohen, "but actively undermining our ability to have public knowledge about climate solutions that comes with integrity that is freedom from industry influence."
The movement caught ground in summer 2022 in the U.S. and U.K., with students at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University calling for fossil-free research. Cambridge failed to budge a few months later, but Stanford took a step forward in December by creating a committee to evaluate the university's fossil fuel research funding.
The movement celebrated a big win in September with Princeton University, which committed to dissociating from fossil fuels for all research and divesting from its endowment. Princeton announced it would create a new fund to offset lost funding but did not give a timeline for dissociation and divestment.
"Princeton still needs to follow through, and we will continue to demand for transparent, full divestment, along with a complete end to fossil fuel funding for research," Nate Howard, co-coordinator for Divest Princeton, previously told BestColleges.
The fossil-free careers movement targets the fossil fuel companies' outreach to students on campuses. Cohen emphasized that these companies aren't only jeopardizing the planet's future but also students' futures at a business with a dead-end business model if we're actually going to decarbonize society.
According to Cohen, the young movement has taken flight in the U.K. but has yet to land in the U.S.
People & Planet, the largest student environmental and social justice network in the U.K., calls for universities to:
- Refuse new fossil fuel relationships
- Decline to renew fossil fuel relationships
- Adopt "Ethical Careers Policies" that explicitly exclude fossil fuels from recruitment opportunities
According to People & Planet, beginning in late 2022, four institutions have put in an "Ethical Careers Policy," which bans oil, gas, and mining recruitment from campuses.
Across the U.K., 12 student unions representing over 270,000 students made commitments to boycott fossil fuel events and prevent them from attending union events. The earliest union to boycott was at the University of Bristol in November 2021.
"More than ever, young people don't want to work for fossil fuel companies or banks financing billions of dollars in fossil fuels," Meiman of Stand.earth previously said. "They don't want to work for institutions that are not aligned with a livable future."
Reinvestment is a complement to divestment, but Cohen has yet to see any university do it at a large scale.
"Universities should be actively investing in equitable, just, rapid, real climate solutions," she said. "In the long run, the question is how whole endowments can be invested responsibly."
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard published a report calling for reinvestment in:
- The community through affordable housing efforts
- The world through renewable energy-based economy investments
- The democratization of the Harvard Corporation and increased student involvement in university decision-making
Cohen said that reinvestment campaigns are the most difficult to organize.
"Reinvestment is a powerful idea but can be hard to organize around in practice, given the difficulty of getting universities to really rethink the impact of their investments at the holistic scale," she said. "But it's clear that universities have viable options for investing in fossil-free funds, just climate solutions, and local communities that they can and must seize now."
Find Community, Understand Activism
"Do your basic internet research, most organizations at this point in time are going to have social media or websites or emails, and you should try to reach out to people you think are working on the issue that most interests or excites you," Cohen said.
She said you could also join plenty of nationwide coalitions if you want to be part of a larger network or if your campus doesn't have an organization you're ready to join.
She recommended Divest Ed, which invests in value-aligned, mutually beneficial, and caring coalition spaces. It partners with coalitions across the country and encourages prospective students to reach out and get plugged in.
She also recommended her organization, Fossil Free Research, which has regular coalition meetings with people from the U.S., U.K., and Canadian universities, and the Sunrise Movement.
If you're new to climate activism and want to learn more, community and working with veteran student activists is the most insightful.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, I think there is a lot that conventional resources are not going to be able to provide," said Cohen. "I'm really investing in one-on-one relationships. I think when you find people around you who you can trust and build community with, that's where you can have the most effective kind of climate activist campaigns come from."
She learned many lessons from organizing and collaborating with people instead of in the classroom. She constantly asked herself what was working and what they could do better.
For leadership training, she recommended authors like Marshall Ganz, a Harvard lecturer in leadership, and Adrienne Maree Brown, who writes strategies for building grassroots campaigns and communities. FFR also offers campaigning, coaching sessions and will add more throughout the year.
She said the stakes for climate change are at an unprecedented high. It's an exciting time to get involved in climate activism on campus and pressure companies and universities to take action.
"Being in a university bubble creates an imperative for action; it doesn't excuse inaction," she said. "I think it's really common for students to leverage the resources we have available to us, being at this unique point in our lives and being in these unique spaces. To ensure that these big institutions are acting in ways that are conducive to climate justice rather than supporting agendas."