Students press Hopkins to drop fossil energy stocks

A pair of Johns Hopkins public health students pause from class to sign petition calling on university to divest its fossil fuel holdings.
A pair of Johns Hopkins public health students pause from class to sign petition calling on university to divest its fossil fuel holdings. (Samuel Ravi Choudhury)

Taking a cue from what they're learning in class, some Johns Hopkins public health students are spearheading a climate-conscious drive to get the university to divest itself of fossil fuel holdings.

Just before taking off for the holiday break, leaders of the Refuel Our Future campaign delivered to JHU President Ronald J. Daniels' office a petition with more than 800 signatures on it calling on the university to rid its $2.7 billion endowment of fossil energy stocks in an effort to ease the predicted environmental and health impacts of climate change.


"A core group of people in our school of public health realized a couple months ago in our environmental courses really what a huge conundrum we are in with the environment and climate change," said Dr. Stephanie Van Dyke, a physician who's studying for a master's in public health on the East Baltimore campus.  "For whatever reason, we just felt really empowered to try to do something."

The Hopkins students latched onto the divestment idea from author and climate activist Bill McKibben, explained Katherine Jochim, a nurse also studying at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jochim said she and a small group of Hopkins students went to Washington to hear McKibben speak as he barnstormed across the country in the fall to warn the public of dire consequences if society keeps pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, has sparked a national movement of students pressing their schools to sell off fossil fuel stocks.  Divestment petition drives have been launched on more than 190 campuses nationwide, according to Daniel Kessler, media campaigner for 350.org, the climate action group McKibben heads.

"It's spreading like wildfire," Kessler said.

So far, only two small New England schools have vowed to redirect their endowment dollars, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College in Maine. But recently, in response to an overwhelming student referendum vote calling for divestment at Harvard University, its president, Drew Faust, announced the elite school would be creating a "social-choice fund" for donors who don't want their gifts invested in fossil fuel stocks. Harvard officials, however, have said it's unlikely the university would drop its fossil energy holdings.

(The University of Maryland, College Park is the only other campus in the state with a petition on 350.org's website.  It's not clear how active that drive is, though, as there were only a handful of names listed there.)

Opponents of divestment argue that endowments need to maximize their earnings to support the ever-growing educational needs of universties. Some also question the effectiveness of such investment boycotts, arguing they have little or no influence on the companies being shunned.

But advocates see divestment as a step in the right direction.

"What we're looking for is a paradigm shift in the way we use fossil fuels," said Jochim.  "Just one school divesting won't matter to them, but if we can change the way people see fossil fuels," she added, that may alter how they vote.  "Policy change follows public opinion," she concluded.

The divestment campaign has particular appeal to the Hopkins students, who take their public health mission seriously. Noting the Bloomberg School's motto is "Protecting health. Saving Lives. Millions at a time," the petition calls it "contradictory and self-defeating" for JHU to be investing in fossil-fuel companies that it argues "threaten the future of its students and life on earth as we know it."

The initial reaction from the university administration has been noncommittal.

"We always appreciate hearing the point of view of concerned students," emailed Dennis O'Shea, JHU's executive director for media relations. "Like them, we are very interested in reducing the university's carbon footprint."

O'Shea went on to note that since JHU adopted a 2009 climate task force report, it has cut its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2008 levels, through more than 150 energy conservation projects completed so far. The report called for the university to reduce emissions 51 percent by 2025.

While praising the university's efforts to shrink its carbon footprint, the student petition drive organizers say it's not enough.


"While it is good to be more sustainable," said Jochim, "it's also important to nip this in the bud."

Less than 1 percent of JHU's "direct holdings" in its endowment are in fossil-related stocks, according to O'Shea. As a private university, however, Hopkins' investments are not public, and O'Shea would not identify any of the companies in which JHU is a stockholder, ergo a partial owner.

There's precedent for Hopkins putting public health concerns over maximizing investment returns.  In 1991, the university's board of trustees voted to divest from companies that make tobacco products.  The trustees declared then that "the holding of tobaco stocks is incompatible with the university's mission to disseminate information on the treatment and prevention of disease and illness."

Van Dyke and Jochim say they hope to keep the campaign going when classes resume early next year.  They've already enlisted some undergraduate students on the Homewood campus to circulate the petition there.

And Van Dyke said they also hope to reach out to one of JHU's more influential alumni, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for whom the public health school is named because of the generous gifts he's given from the wealth he's accumulated through his financial news empire.  Even before Superstorm Sandy devastated the southern tip of his city this fall, Bloomberg was outspoken on the need for the nation to come to grips with the threat of climate change.

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