At the age of sixteen, Bridgewater resident Shane Patel attended the Student Climate and Conservation Congress. Organized by a network of schools called the Green School Alliance, the conference brought students and activists together to discuss all aspects of climate change and conservation, from basic physics to social justice theory. And while the conference itself lasted only five days, its influence on Patel would last for much longer.
Now a senior in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering with a double major in public policy, Patel is the president of the Rutgers University Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign. Kicked off in March 2013 following a lecture by environmental activist Bill MicKibben, the campaign is a coalition of Rutgers students and faculty pushing the university’s governing boards into divesting, or removing all investments, from the fossil fuel industry.
“Even though none of us can entirely avoid using fossil fuel at this point, we can sure as hell avoid profiting from it,” McKibben said to the crowd of students in February 2013. “It is wrong to wreck the climate and it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
The university has already taken impressive steps to promote green habits and lessen waste. Patel said the Livingston solar farm and the single-stream recycling program show that Rutgers has a commitment to the environment. Divestment is just another step further.
More importantly, Patel said the divestment campaign encourages public discussion of the issue of climate change. Last academic year, the campaign spearheaded the university’s Earth Day events, including the Rally for Climate Justice on the Brower Steps and the Engineering and Climate Change panel featuring several School of Engineering professors. The events garnered a positive response from the Rutgers community, with the campaign receiving support from other university groups including the Engineering Governing Council, RUSA, and the Cook Campus Deans.
Over the summer, Patel and a group of members also met with Senior Vice President of Finances Michael Gower and the Board of Governors/Board of Trustees Joint Committee on Investments Chair Tilak Lal. Together, they are now actively researching what options we have to make divestment feasible. Their goal is to have the university divest within the next five years.
“While the decision is not his alone to make, having him as an ally is an exciting step in the right direction,” Patel said.
In the meantime, the campaign has an online petition addressed to the Board of Governors ready for the public to sign.
The petition reads:
We are witnessing the increasing impacts of a warming planet more and more consistently…just this past fall, Hurricane Sandy alone caused the state of New Jersey $39.9 billion in damages according to Governor Christie…Fundamentally, Rutgers University’s mission as a public institution entails a broad commitment to the state of New Jersey. As the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy make clear, that mission is inconsistent with continuing to profit off an industry whose business model is driving the destabilization of the planet.
The document currently has 249 of the 300 signatures required for sending, and the numbers are growing steadily as the issues surrounding climate change become more visible.
At the beginning of the fall semester, on September 21, 2014, the nation even showed its support of the divestment’s core cause at the People’s Climate March in New York City. The march was the largest climate march in the nation’s history with 310,000 people in attendance. The campaign and the Students of Environmental Awareness were there too; according to Shane, they organized a group of 150 Rutgers students to attend.
“I can't recall a time I have ever been more proud of my alma mater,” Patel wrote in a message to fellow campaign members on their Facebook page. “History is riddled with stories that show the power of the people when they pour their efforts into their passion, and the climate movement might be the greatest example…to create another world, we need to create local change in our communities.”
This school year, the campaign has several initiatives planned, including art and film festivals on campus in collaboration with local and university organizations. One of their bigger plans is even to collaborate with other Big Ten schools as well – currently, eight of the 14 schools, Rutgers included, have campus divestment campaigns.
“It’s just a matter of bringing all of us together,” Patel said. “Once one person puts his foot in the water, it’s easier for everyone else to jump in,” he said.
Patel graduates in 2015 and plans to attend graduate school to study energy storage.
Story by Ingrid Paredes ENG'15