[by Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith]

Do you want your college tuition or tax dollars invested to increase droughts, storms, forest fires, and crop failures — and an unending series of Katrinas and Sandys?  Or do you want them used to lower greenhouse gases on your campus and in your community? That is the stark choice both students and taxpayers will soon be facing.

In a stunning article in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben explains that the amount of carbon already contained in coal, oil, and gas reserves currently owned by companies and countries worldwide is five times what climate scientists say is safe to burn. Yet those companies spend hundreds of billions of dollar a year mining, drilling, and prospecting for the fossil fuels that are destroying our future. Worse yet, they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars persuading politicians and the public not to transition to a climate-safe economy.  As writer Naomi Klein said of the fossil-fuel industry, “Wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

In the face of this terrifying new math, 350.org has kicked off a 20 city tour to jumpstart a campaign demanding colleges and municipalities stop investing in companies that produce or invest in the fossil fuels. They are taking as their inspiration the divestment campaign that helped force the Apartheid regime in South Africa to negotiate with Nelson Mandela and ultimately accept majority rule.

But 350.org’s campaign has the potential to be about more than divestment from the fossil fuel industry — it can be about investment in building a sustainable economy.

A high proportion of colleges, universities, and local governments already have Climate Action Plans to transition to cleaner energy. But most of them are proceeding at a snail’s pace. The reason? They are starved for the money to invest in clean energy initiatives.

The obvious solution is to take the money divested from fossil fuel corporations and invest it in programs to reduce energy use and expand clean energy in our campuses and communities.

But won’t that result in a lower “return on investment” for college funds, thereby starving other programs? Absolutely not. It’s a little-known fact that the return on investment from programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a far higher rate of return than almost any investment in corporations.

For example, George Washington University recently dedicated $5.3 million to replace outmoded heating and cooling systems. The plan will reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by the year 2025, and the entire $5.3 million investment will be recouped in seven years.  And after that the University will save $800,000 a year free and clear on its investment.

A recent study of “green revolving funds” through which colleges invest in increasing their own energy efficiency found “consistent annual returns ranging from 29 percent (Iowa State University) to more than 47 percent (Western Michigan University).  The median annual return on investment was 32%.

That compares to a 7-12% return for typical endowment investments!

Such investments create jobs and purchasing in local communities. Indeed, there is no reason such investments have to be restricted to campuses. Colleges can invest in fossil-fuel reduction programs in their neighborhoods and communities and divide the resulting savings between community institutions and their own endowments. And as local and state governments join the fossil fuel divestment campaign, they can similarly invest – with profit! – in their own climate-protecting clean energy programs.

Such a campaign may kick off with students, but it can become a unifying strategy bringing together workers, environmentalists, and local communities. It reflects everyone’s interest in protecting the climate. And at the same time it addresses the desperate need for jobs and local economic development.

The campaign to force colleges to divest from Apartheid started with teach-ins and demonstrations. It moved on to disruptions of trustee meetings and occupations of campus buildings.  Students built and lived in shanty towns on their campuses. The movement spread beyond campuses, with 26 states, 22 counties and over 90 cities taking binding economic action against companies doing business in South Africa. The campaign contributed to a financial crisis that helped bring the Apartheid regime to the bargaining table. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — who has joined350.org’s “Do the Math Tour” — the anti-apartheid movement “would not have succeeded without the help of…the divestment movement of the 1980s.”

On the heels of this summers’ droughts, fires and crop failures, everybody is talking about climate change. Now there’s something we can do about it.