WILLIAMSTOWN -- A recent setback in their efforts to combat global warming has inspired a group of Williams College students to find another way to channel their energies -- raising awareness.
The group of more than 200 students had been pressing a college committee to divest the endowment fund from selling or buying stock in coal producing companies. But the committee on investments declined their proposal.
Their response? The students have resolved to broaden support for their cause through various means -- posters, rallies, hosting speakers, a petition and other forms of activism.
"This movement has had a lot of energy and a lot of passion and I think has energized the discussion on campus," said economics professor Anand Swamy.
Swamy moderated a discussion at the school this week titled "Williams and Fossil Fuels: Consumption and Investment," which he said wouldn't have occurred but for these students' efforts.
Todd Holland was the first panelist to speak. As energy conservation project manager for the school, Holland implements measures that reduce the college's energy use.
From 1990 to 2007, energy use by the college was climbing 3.5 percent per year, but since then the school has cut this figure and set a goal of reducing energy use to 10 percent below the 1990 level by 2020.
Holland's projects mainly include lighting retrofits, putting better controls on equipment that heats and cools buildings and converting to natural gas the few campus buildings that still run on oil.
Renewables and alternative energy must also be considered, but in the short term, Holland said conservation is any institution's best bet at addressing climate change and global warming.
"It's the easiest thing you can throw at this problem and throw it quickly," he said. "It's your first line of defense; it's your best line of defense."
Projects taken on over the past two years -- building alterations, light bulb replacements, acquiring cut-rate LED lights for students, insulation -- now save the college $300,000 annually, Holland said.
Tara Miller, a student of the class of 2015, represented the divestment campaign, which has been taken up by more than 300 colleges and 100 cities countrywide.
Miller said the campaign seeks to make a statement. It's not possible to inflict serious damage to these companies by divestment, but "this social movement could create the momentum for political change," she said.
Similar divestment helped put pressure on the South African government during Apartheid and reduced the power and influence of big tobacco companies in the past, she added.
According to Miller, Unity College in Maine has seen an increase in alumni donations since divesting.
"Our divestment campaign already has a significant alumni component -- alumni who have pledged that they're not going to donate to Williams until it pledges to divest from fossil fuel [investments]," Miller said.
Only 3 percent of Williams College's $1.8 billion endowment is directly invested by the college. The other 97 percent is handled by account managers of corporate investment funds -- in "opaque, commingled vehicles," one member of the school's Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibilities said during the discussion.
The final panelist, economics professor Ashok Rai, said the school should consider innovative ways to engage its population as a means of encouraging socially responsible decisions.
He called for an academic emphasis on climate change -- including a required course or even a course block.
"I know the resistance is ‘But we have many requirements,' but the issue is: Are those requirements more of a priority than this one?" Rai said.
Rai went on to propose promoting environmentally concerned books, student trips during winter to low-energy use countries, all vegetarian and vegan dining halls and a meal plan priced to reflect the amount of emissions contained in various foods -- which would incentivize eating less meat, particularly beef.
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