Award-winning Investigative Journalist Robert Parry (1949-2018)

Award-winning investigative journalist and founder/editor of, Robert Parry has passed away. His ground-breaking work uncovering Reagan-era dirty wars in Central America and many other illegal and immoral policies conducted by successive administrations and U.S. intelligence agencies, stands as an inspiration to all in journalists working in the public interest.

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Climate Change Divestment Campaign Pressures Universities to Divest Their Fossil Fuel Stocks

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Posted Dec. 12, 2012

Interview with Jamie Henn, communications director with, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Bill McKibben, the author of a dozen books about the environment and founder of the grassroots climate change campaign group, just completed a 21-city tour focused on applying pressure on colleges and universities to divest their portfolios of fossil fuel stocks. McKibben’s “Do the Math Tour” was based on his article in Rolling Stone magazine last summer that explained that no more than 20 percent of the known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas can be extracted and burned if we are to limit the warming of the earth's atmosphere to no more than two degrees Celsius. That's the amount above which scientists predict life on Earth will be dramatically disrupted.

Before launching the divestment campaign McKibben discussed the idea with Desmond Tutu and other South African activists who helped organize the international anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s, that helped topple South Africa’s racist government.

Jamie Henn is one of the co-founders of, along with a handful of other students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where McKibben is a writer in residence. Between The Line’s Melinda Tuhus spoke with Henn, now serving as’s communications director about the goals of his group’s divestment campaign and the dire challenges of climate change.

JAMIE HENN: We kicked off this Do the Math tour the day after the election on Nov. 7 in Seattle, Wash. and sold out the big concert hall there, over 2,000 people. It was an amazing start to the tour. And after that it kept gaining steam and selling out 21 shows across the country – amazing crowds, and I think really helped kickstart this new effort to really take on the fossil fuel industry.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So this campaign is harking back to the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa, which urged divestment from businesses that operated there under apartheid. How exactly will your campaign work?

JAMIE HENN: As you said, we're sort of looking at the example of the movement in the 1980s that helped end apartheid as a great organizing tool. What happened during apartheid was that colleges and universities – and then quickly, cities and states around the U.S. – took part in pressuring institutions to divest their holdings. In the case of colleges and universities, that's their endowments from the apartheid government in South Africa.

And it had two major effects. One was really beginning to paint the apartheid issue as a moral fight, something that it was just wrong to be connected to. If you cared about liberty and human rights, you couldn't be putting your money into South Africa. The second was a real economic argument, that by divesting, companies or institutions could really have a big impact on companies that were invested in South Africa and begin to put pressure on them to take action.

So we've learned a lot from that fight. We've learned a lot from people who were involved in that. And now we're spreading this similar effort on fossil fuels around the country, and it's been amazing to watch. As of today, over 160 colleges have signed up around the country. They range from big state schools like the University of Wisconsin to small liberal arts colleges. And it's incredibly exciting to see students completely get this, to understand the logic that if it's wrong to wreck the planet, then it's also wrong to profit from that wreckage, and begin to push their administrations to divest. As of today, only two schools have fully divested, but we're only three weeks into the campaign, so it's going pretty well. That's Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College up in Maine. At other campuses, the discussion is at varying stages.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jamie Henn, I know it's hard to find out where and how much colleges have invested their endowment money, but I guess it's safe to say the amount invested in fossil fuel companies varies a lot...

JAMIE HENN: There's a range on campuses of how much money is invested in the fossil fuel industry. But it's still very doable for most schools to move away from it. And the reason why is because there's lots of great new investment vehicles that allow for people to invest in renewable energy companies and in the type of campus improvement projects that not only help to retrofit a building on campus or install solar panels in the community, but also give a great rate of return, and a better rate of return than you could get by putting your money on Wall Street.

So we're excited that this movement won't just be about the moral case for divestment – as important as that is – but will also try to make the case for reinvestment and saying, "Hey, instead of taking these billions of dollars and giving them to the richest companies on the planet and putting it through Wall Street, why can't we reinvest back into our communities, create local jobs and get a good rate of return on new types of investments?" So it's exciting to see that beginning to happen.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You mentioned my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. So is there a role for alumni? A way they can get a piece of the action?

JAMIE HENN: Definitely, and that's what's been really fun about this campaign, is actually connecting alumni with current students and having them strategize together to push the institution to take action. That's something we're hoping to do a lot more of over the coming weeks; we're just setting it up now. Alumni can do a lot. You may have noticed that your school maintains an interest in you (chuckles) and wants your donations. They also want to hear alumni opinion. So one of the things we've been encouraging alumni to do right away is send a letter to your university, either directly to the administration or publish it – a letter to the editor or even an op-ed in a campus newspaper or alumni magazine, raising the issue, maybe reflecting back on the anti-apartheid movement and thinking about how the school could move in this new direction. That's been happening on a lot of campuses, and it's been really exciting to see, and really inspiring for the students.

I think that this is an interesting moment, you know, this isn't the 1960s – I think that students still trust people over the age of 30 and want to work with them and connect with them and be in partnership on this. So while this is in many ways youth-led on the campuses, it's been really fun and really meaningful for students to connect with alumni and professors and other advisers and put together a full-circle campaign on a college, and again, have a dialogue with the administration. We're not out to antagonize the many good people that work at universities.

I think the goal is to spark a discussion and force them to make a difficult choice. I think we begin to need to take bolder action now. The latest reports coming out of scientific agencies show we're really running out of time and that in order to keep global warming below this target of two degrees (Celsius), which even the most conservative governments on the planet, including the U.S., have signed on to, we need to keep upwards of around 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves these companies have in the ground. That's a big task, and it's gonna take really serious government regulations; it's gonna take a movement of people all across the country and around the world pushing for it. Divestment is one way to make that moral case to get the discussion going and to begin to build the political will necessary for the type of regulations that we need.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Some critics have said this is the wrong approach, and what really needs to happen is pressure on the federal government to enact and enforce tighter regulations. What do you say to that?

JAMIE HENN: We're continuing to push for government action, but we need to wake up to the fact that there's been a bipartisan consensus in Washington to do nothing over the past 25 years, and in many cases that's because of the overwhelming power of the fossil fuel industry. You know, we can keep working around the edges on this problem without addressing Exxon's lobbying power, but until we take these guys head on, and begin to weaken their power in Washington, we're not going to see the type of changes that we need. We're just running out of time.

Learn more about’s divestment campaign by visiting and To reach the campaign’s organizers, email

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