Washington University and climate: Pride and embarrassment

As a Washington University alumnus, I was disappointed but not surprised by the responses from fourth-year Olin Business School students regarding recent student protests at Bank of America’s on-campus recruiting events. As other op-ed contributors have pointed out, the complaints of students who were “embarrassed” by the climate activists’ protest do not rise above the level of self-interested indignation, and these students completely fail to demonstrate concern for the significant damage to environment and human health that Bank of America is responsible for. It is disturbing to observe these business students launching a defense of a corporation in pursuit of their own enrichment, but then again, this behavior is encouraged and rewarded within the finance industry and by Washington University.

Since 2008, when I was an undergraduate, Washington University in St. Louis has hosted the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” a research project funded in large part by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, and by Arch Coal, a notorious practitioner of appalling mountaintop removal mining in central and southern Appalachia. As any sensitive reader should note, “clean coal” is not a scientific term but a Madison Avenue advertising slogan that Washington University has been all too willing to promote. The coal industry has been able to buy our university’s credibility, treating the institution as a glorified billboard. In exchange for big coal’s money, Washington University is helping to “greenwash” Peabody and Arch’s criminal air and water pollution, destruction of Appalachian communities, climate denialism and climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions. These offensive ties to the coal industry are black marks on the record of Mark Wrighton’s tenure as chancellor, and a worrying departure from the integrity that is expected of premier universities. The eagerness that some Olin business students display in rushing to ignore or excuse serious corporate abuses in order to secure high-paying positions is, unfortunately, reflected at the higher levels of Washington University. This is truly embarrassing.

I am incredibly proud of the Washington University students who engaged Bank of America’s recruiters with courage and intelligent demands. Since graduating in 2010, I have gone on to work at Rainforest Action Network (RAN), an environmental nonprofit that has successfully campaigned to change bank policies for the last decade. In 2010, RAN worked with frontline community members, everyday people and student activists to win landmark policies restricting mountaintop removal financing at the 10 largest U.S. banks, including Bank of America and Citi. Despite this significant victory, Bank of America continues to fund nearly half of the world’s mountaintop removal miners, and Citi and Bank of America have poured a combined $263 billion into fossil fuel companies since 2010. Our current campaign is seeking the adoption of policies to de-carbonize the lending portfolios of these banks, as well as a full-sector exclusion on lending for mountaintop removal mining companies. Combining grassroots pressure with financial research, internal negotiation and shareholder activism, RAN’s campaigning has a track record of engaging with and winning policies from some of the worst environmental offenders. Our network has been successful thanks to bold, visionary activists like the Washington University students who found Bank of America on campus last week. While debate continues at Washington University this week, students at 11 colleges and universities across the country have been inspired and sought out Citi and Bank of America recruiters on their campuses, helping force the issue of coal and climate change funding. Many more campuses are in the process of planning similar action, a testament to the leadership of engaged Washington University students.

Please join me in congratulating and supporting the members of our communities who stand up and agitate for justice, even in the face of social backlash. The last thing our society needs are more apologists who would rather hide behind “greenwashed” proclamations of sustainability than speak out, as history demands we do. The extreme and terrifying threats associated with global climate change must be met with bold, empathetic action from civil society and institutions the world over. For this reason, I sincerely hope, and believe, that the future belongs to young people like the Washington University students who took action last week. Bravo Wash. U. climate justice activists!

Todd Zimmer is a 2010 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a campaigner at Rainforest Action Network.

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