Yale Climate Activists Launch Direct Action Protests to Press for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Posted April 15, 2015

MP3 Interview with Chelsea Watson, Maya Jenkins and Phoebe Chatfield, Yale Student Leaders, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Forty-eight Yale University undergraduate students with the group Fossil Free Yale conducted a sit-in on April 9 outside Yale’s president's office the action was organized to pressure the university to reconsider its decision not to divest fossil fuel stocks from its $24 billion endowment portfolio.

At the end of the day, 19 of the students were arrested for refusing to leave the building. Yale joins Swarthmore College students, who have conducted a sit-in since March 19, Harvard, which launched what it calls Heat Week civil disobedience actions beginning April 12, and other universities and colleges across the U.S. which are stepping up protests to press for divestment this spring.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with several of the Yale student activists before they began their occupation of the building.

BETWEEN THE LINES: First is Chelsea Watson, a sophomore.

CHELSEA WATSON: The way we started this campaign was we solely worked through administrative channels; we didn't do much movement building; we were really focused on research proposals, meeting with the administration. After doing that for two years and getting a no, then getting a no this August it became clear that any work we're doing, the administration is not paying attention. The administration has closed the conversation. Every time we elicit a response -- we've gotten a few responses -- we're only given sustainability initiatives. I love sustainability; I work in the Sustainability Office, but the thing is that's a separate thing from divestment. Sustainability focuses on Yale campus's individual carbon footprint; it focuses on Yale students' climate footprint, but it doesn't focus on the scope and scale of climate change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Next, freshman Maya Jenkins responds to the criticism that divestment is not an effective strategy.

MAYA JENKINS: Divestment, a lot of the arguments are that it won't financially injure any companies. it's critical to understand that divestment does not seek to financially injure any companies. We know that our school divesting is not going to crash the market. But what it does seek to do is change the conversation and stigmatize these industries. And so it's a political statement more than anything, and I think especially at a place like Yale with a lot of clout -- and Yale's been a leader in numerous things -- divesting would help to shift and change that conversation. So, even sitting in today, we are in solidarity with a lot of other campaigns around the world that are taking direct action this spring. So that always feels incredible, and it feels like you are a part of something bigger, which is really awesome.

NATHAN LOBEL: Well, Yale is fairly unusual in that we actually have a document called the Ethical Investor that governs how the university is supposed to behave in this situation. So last year we designed a divestment proposal that was purposefully exactly within the lines of divestment through that document, and even with all that compromise, the Yale Corporation decided in August that they were not going to divest. And not even to do the most basic part of that proposal, which was to ask companies how much carbon the burning of their fuels was producing. After that time we decided that if the Corporation wasn't going to work collaboratively with us, we should be advocating for everything we want when it comes to divestment. So that proposal focused very heavily on the social injury of climate change, where really, the social injury that fossil fuel companies inflict is definitely largely environmental but also includes various social injustices which include the fact that the first victims of climate change are always going to be marginalized communities, people of color, citizens of developing nations, indigenous communities. But also even in their extraction and refinement processes, the fossil fuel industry inflicts a social injury on these groups. When you see water that's contaminated from fracking, when you see people displaced by mountaintop removal coal, again, those are always the same types of marginalized groups, and the people who are the victims of those social injuries are never really the people who look like the decision makers at Yale or in the board room of a fossil fuel company.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Here's freshman Phoebe Chatfield reading Fossil Fuel Yale's statement to President Peter Salovey.

PHOEBE CHATFIELD: FFY has worked collaboratively with the Yale administration over the past 2.5 years, but the Yale Corporation has not acknowledged the premise of our request, making clear to us that decision-makers have stopped listening to student voices on this issue. We are here because, though we welcome dialogue with administrators, we feel the need to ensure that future conversations continue to be productive. We are here because the fossil fuel industry depends on its ability to keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and our survival depends on our ability to stop them, and right now they are winning. We are here because climate change deniers in Congress receive four times as much money from the fossil fuel industry as those who accept climate change's reality. We are here because fossil fuel companies flagrantly disregard the well-being of marginalized communities neighboring extraction and refinement sites. We are here, sitting with the divestment movements around the world who engage in civil disobedience this spring to show that we will not give up this fight. We are here in solidarity with those on the front lines of climate injustice. We are here because we understand that for Yale to divest would be a powerful act, and we want to show that we, too, are willing to take powerful action. We are here because the challenges of our day require bold leadership, and we believe that Yale can, and must be, that leader. We are here because we believe fossil fuel divestment is in line with the values of the Yale community. We are here today to ask that the Yale Corporation publicly commit to reconsider fossil fuel divestment and explain why the conversation on divestment must be reopened.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Salovey suggested the students go through the existing channels they've already pursued with no results over the last few years. Chatfield said she and many other students were inspired to action after participating in the People's Climate March in New York City last September, shortly after arriving on campus.

Find more news on the fossil fuel divestment campaign by visiting Fossil Free Yale's website at fossilfreeyale.org.

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