At noon on Wednesday, Sept. 25, during their fifth week of college classes, 50 first years walked out of their Directed Studies lecture to the largest climate demonstration ever to take place at Yale. The Yale Climate Strike, which the Yale Police Department estimated to include 1,500 people, showed that at Yale — as around the world — young people are stepping up to take on the gravest crisis facing humanity today. The global climate strike on Sept. 20 was the largest demonstration for climate action ever, with 4 million participants in 163 countries. Around the world, high school students led masses of protestors into the streets to demand rapid, bold action to address climate change. Now is the time for leaders at Yale and across the globe to start listening and take action.
About one in five Yale students walked out of class to call out an administration that is dangerously out of touch with the climate emergency. Their message was clear: Yale’s investments in the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt are indefensible.
Our demands echo those of millions of other students marching around the world. We are the first generation to wake up to the climate crisis and put mass pressure on those with the power to transform society.
In last year’s landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists warned that we need “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in energy, infrastructure and industrial systems “at an unprecedented scale” by the year 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
There must be a rapid transition away from the fossil fuel economy. When a powerful institution like Yale supports the growth of the companies that form its foundation, it becomes complicit in the environmental disasters faced by the residents of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria is woefully incomplete, with tens of thousands of homes still using blue tarps as temporary roofs. Meanwhile, the island was recently hit with flooding from Tropical Storm Karen. But Yale’s endowment keeps squeezing the island for debt it cannot afford to pay.
If Yale wants to take leadership on climate change that scales to the crisis at hand, it must divest all holdings in the fossil fuel industry and instruct its fund managers to cancel Puerto Rican debt. Students will keep coming back — in even greater numbers — until our university is standing on the right side of history.
Following the lead of Puerto Rican student group Despierta Boricua, striking students demanded that Yale pressure its fund managers to cancel their unconscionable holdings in Puerto Rican debt. Yale holds shares in at least five investment groups that held Puerto Rican debt at the end of 2017.
The Federal Oversight and Management Board, the unelected body charged with managing the island’s finances, has focused on creating significant fiscal surplus to pay back debt collectors, prioritizing the demands of the hedge funds Yale invests in and other Wall Street firms over the needs of ordinary Puerto Ricans. Its most recent fiscal plan included hundreds of millions of dollars of proposed cuts to Medicaid and to the University of Puerto Rico. Over the summer, historic mass protests against the austerity policies and corruption that have imposed climate misery on the island forced the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, to resign.
Activists in marginalized communities are leading the fight for climate action all over the world, but they’re not being listened to enough. At Yale, many of us are insulated from the frontlines of the climate crisis, but we are part of an institution whose power and money have global reach. We should use this position to support the struggle for a just and liveable future that activists in Puerto Rico are waging every day.
Faculty, not just students, are raising their voices for these demands in powerful new ways. American studies professor Ana Ramos-Zayas, who has family living in Puerto Rico, spoke movingly at the strike: “They tried to convince us that these are natural disasters, but there is nothing natural about them. And people are benefiting even as we speak.” Echoing the urgency in her voice, professors in Yale College, the Law School, the Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies cancelled classes, and many professors encouraged students to walk out, with some giving short presentations on Yale’s unethical investments.
Administrators point to Yale’s climate research and sustainability efforts as evidence that Yale is doing plenty to fight climate change. The climate strike showed that huge numbers of students know it isn’t enough. It is hypocritical to claim leadership on climate change when our institution is funded by the fossil-fuel industry — which is principally responsible for the crisis — and by hedge funds enforcing its most brutal impacts.
What’s more, as the most influential university investor in the country, Yale has a unique responsibility to take moral leadership on the climate crisis. If it did, other universities would follow suit. But administrators and university investors continue to claim that market mechanisms alone will solve the crisis, an argument that has been disproven over and over again.
Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and the Yale Corporation are failing us and young people around the world. Faced with a climate crisis — and the ethical disaster of Yale’s complicity in it — students have little choice but to use direct action, the most powerful tool in pressuring the administration, on a scale never before seen at Yale. The climate strike was the most powerful evidence to date that we can and will win. Our fight goes on. After all, 2030 is only getting closer.
Benjamin Levin is a senior in Silliman College. He is a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition, which organized the climate strike. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .