For the past two years, activists at the University of California, Berkeley have been campaigning to convince the institution to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.
They have made slow progress. In a non-binding referendum last month, students overwhelmingly supported the idea and the student senate agreed to shed the fossil fuel investments in its own small endowment. Berkeley, however, has not budged on the main demand: that it dump all fossil fuel stocks from its $3 billion (£1.9 billion) endowment portfolio.
Despite this, the drive is spreading awareness of the connection between higher education and companies involved in extracting, refining and supplying fossil fuels, argued Katie Hoffman, chief of staff at Berkeley’s Student Environmental Resource Center and a leading campaigner on the issue.
“These things have been sort of black-boxed for people who don’t have time to understand the functions of our financial system,” she said.
With growing US momentum behind it, the Fossil Free campaign hopes to export its message to campuses in Europe. It plans to launch in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands this autumn.
“While there are not the same endowments and big financial investments [in Europe] as there are in the US, we still think there’s the opportunity to be making the moral argument against the relationship between our public institutions and the fossil fuel industry,” said Emma Biermann, Paris-based European coordinator for the environmental group 350.org, which is organising the campaign.
The movement is targeting 200 companies worldwide, including ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, and echoes divestment drives in the past that focused on issues such as apartheid in South Africa and sweatshops in Asia.
Outside the academy, the city of Seattle, which will move its pension-fund investments out of fossil fuel companies, and the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, which will divest its fossil fuel stocks, have been won over by the argument.
Students have organised campaign chapters on 300 US campuses, but securing pledges from the universities has been difficult.
Five small private institutions - three with an environmental focus and all situated in places that put a premium on their natural settings - have promised to divest: Unity College and the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, Sterling College in Vermont and the Santa Fe Art Institute.
“We’re not interested in making money by investing in companies whose main business is wrecking the planet,” said Jesse Pyles, Unity’s sustainability director.
“This is a moral argument to us. It is an ethical obligation to our students and the future they’ll inherit.”
As at Berkeley, students at Harvard University urged in a referendum in November that the institution divest its $31 billion endowment of fossil fuel stocks. (At Harvard, 72 per cent of those who voted were in favour; at Berkeley, 73 per cent.) They have also collected 1,500 signatures on a petition calling for divestment, including those of 40 academics.
But while administrators agreed to meet with leaders of the Fossil Free campaign and have said they will invest in companies developing clean technology, they have also shown no inclination to rid the institution of its fossil fuel shares.
“It’s frustrating,” said Chloe Maxmin, a second-year student coordinator of the campaign at Harvard. “The concerns about the fossil fuel industry are not being heard by the administration.”
In a statement, Harvard says its endowment supports scholarly work including “groundbreaking research and education on climate change”.
However, the campaign claimed a victory last week when the city of San Francisco’s board of supervisors passed a resolution to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies, although the decision still has to be ratified by the pension board.
“We don’t presume that we’re going to solve the climate crisis,” Mr Pyles said. “But all the greening of higher education is for nothing if we’re not holding institutions responsible for what they are actually doing about sustainability.”