A blog post by divestment leaders, Daniela Lapidous, Emily Kirkland and Richard Herron.

In case you have not heard the exuberant cheering about Obama uttering the word “divest” in his recent climate change address, a new wave of student activism has taken the nation’s campuses by storm over the past nine months. Students at more than 300 colleges and universities are calling on their administrations to divest their endowments from fossil fuels. Young people know that the clock is ticking on climate change, and they’re asking their institutions to stop investing in the oil, gas, and coal companies that are the primary perpetrators of the problem.

As student divestment activists, we believe in this movement, and we felt compelled to respond to the June 19th article by Tom Harris (Eight questions to ask student activists about fossil fuel divestment campaigns). In the article, Harris suggests that university administrators respond to divestment campaigns by asking students basic questions about climate science and policy, including “Are the changes we are now seeing dangerous to human society or the environment?” and “Is the major part of CO2 rise due to human activity?”

Dear Mr. Harris – if you would like to distract fossil fuel divestment activists from our work, you are going to have to ask much tougher questions. One example would be, why is University Business publishing a piece by the executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition, a climate denial front group that has received funding from the Heartland Institute, with such a sparse byline? Harris is also the former Director of Operations for the High Park Group, a lobbying firm for the energy industry. No wonder Harris urges us to react to climate change by burning more fossil fuels in order to “handle greater demands for air conditioning”.

The good news is that student activists can certainly provide satisfying answers to the questions Harris poses. 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and that it is due to human activity. Dozens of national and international scientific organizations have published statements asserting that climate change is dangerous and calling on policymakers to act. If the world wants to avoid devastating droughts, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and hurricanes over the coming decades, we need to begin reducing our emissions now.

If Harris is concerned that there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels, he should take look to the study recently co-authored by researchers from Stanford, Cornell, and UC Davis that concluded New York could be entirely powered by renewable energy by 2030 with no long-term economic sacrifice. The only obstacle is “the political sphere”, and denialists like Harris cloud economic and scientific judgement in that sphere.

As activists, we do agree with Harris on one point: the goal of divestment is to spur critical thinking. Like Harris, we want students, professors, alumni and administrators to “learn more about the issues at hand, think critically, and come to their own conclusions based on the evidence they find.” We want students, professors, alumni, and staff to consider about the role of our institutions in advancing environmental justice and sustainability. Does it make sense for universities and colleges to educate us for the future while investing in companies that are actively imperiling that future? Does it make sense for our institutions to invest in fossil fuels while scientists in our own research labs are studying the terrifying effects of climate change?

We’re asking administrators to engage in a respectful dialogue with students, instead of indulging those who mask their very real, personal interests in the industries that are profiting from environmental destruction. For more than a decade, fossil fuel companies have been funding efforts to deny the science of climate change. Oil, gas, and coal companies have provided support to people like Tom Harris, thereby spreading misinformation and preventing serious policy action. By divesting from fossil fuel companies, our institutions can help shift the conversation about climate change towards a serious confrontation of the crisis at hand.