When William Minter was a graduate student at UW-Madison in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was active in a group pushing the university to sever connections with companies doing business in South Africa, then under Apartheid.
Most activists at the time were focusing on the Vietnam War, and the divestment campaign seemed trifling in comparison. "People said, 'It's really not going to have a lot of impact," Minter remembers. "The fact is, at first it wasn't that great."
But over the next two decades, the movement slowly gained force. Years after Minter left Madison, the UW did pull its investments out of South Africa. And eventually the economic pressure around the country helped topple the Apartheid regime. In 1994, South Africa held fully democratic elections that brought Nelson Mandela to power.
Now, a new group of student activists is using this model in its efforts to force change on global warming. 350 Madison Climate Action Team is gearing up to pressure the UW-Madison to withdraw investments from all companies that cultivate oil, coal and natural gas.
"This is the issue of our generation," says Kevin Mauer, a UW student involved with 350 Madison Climate Action Team. "As students, the university is a very large organization that we have special influence on."
"The university has been very good about operating in a sustainable way," says Emmy Burns, another student activist, referring to the school's efforts to reduce waste and use energy efficiently. "But this is so much bigger than that."
You'd think Bill McKibben would be a bit depressed. The writer and activist has dedicated the last several years of his life to drawing attention to the issue of global warming, forming the national 350.org in 2008. The "350" refers to the amount of carbon, in parts per million, that scientists consider a safe maximum to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet this year, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere reached 395 parts per million. Despite this, the issue got almost no attention during the presidential campaign from either major candidate.
"It's one of these situations where things keep getting worse and worse," McKibben says. "We've raised the temperature of the planet one degree, which means the Arctic is now melting. Two degrees will be a lot worse. If we go past that, it's going to be a science fiction world."
Yet, on the Friday after the presidential election, McKibben sees reason for hope. For one thing, people under 30 voted in record numbers; their votes alone accounted for President Obama's reelection margin.
"We know in that age group, one of the biggest issues is climate change, which makes sense," he says. "If you've got another 60 years on this planet, it behooves you to know the last 40 aren't going to suck."
McKibben also points to surveys that show 74% of the country now believes global warming is a serious issue. "That's more Americans than you can get to agree on anything."
But McKibben - who speaks at the Masonic Center, 301 Wisconsin Ave., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 - has given up waiting for Washington to take action. He's touring the country on a bus powered by alternative fuels on his "Do the Math" tour. Using the South African campaign as a model, McKibben is urging people to pressure institutions to pull their investments from oil, gas and coal companies.
These companies, he says, have in their reserves five times the amount most governments believe it would be safe to burn without causing catastrophic climate change. "In other words, it's a rogue industry."
"We want the University of Wisconsin and all the other colleges and churches and everyone else to sell their stock in fossil fuel companies," McKibben says. "It's not all right to be profiting from the wreckage of the planet."
Burns and Mauer hope UW-Madison can be added to the list. And they're using McKibben's visit to kick the campaign off in earnest. The group is focusing its energies, for now, on the UW Foundation, which is based in Madison. The foundation has more than $2.5 billion in investments. Mauer and Burns say they've been unsuccessful in trying to meet with the foundation's stewards.
Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the foundation, wouldn't comment in detail about the campaign or the foundation's investments. "I haven't heard from them, so I don't have any firsthand knowledge," he says. "There's a lot of companies we don't invest in, but we make those decisions one at a time."
The students don't know the precise amount of money the foundation has invested in fossil fuel companies. Burns says, "the language is pretty vague" regarding the foundation's investments. But they know that some foundation money is invested there. Its 2010 endowment report (PDF) briefly mentions "oil and gas partnerships."
"It's frustrating because the foundation is completely separate from the university," Burns says. "They don't necessarily see accountability to students as a first priority."
The national 350.org has identified about 200 companies it is targeting in the campaign. McKibben hopes to inspire people to act locally in the fight. "If you're a student, you can put tremendous pressure on [your university's] board of regents to sell that stock. It's a good thing to change your light bulb, but a more important thing to change the structure and the system."
Those involved in the South African divestment campaign say that forcing social change takes a long time. Even forcing stocks down "a penny," Minter says, involves getting numerous universities to divest. But the divestment campaign was successful not just because of the economic pressure it eventually brought to bear on South Africa, but because it helped build awareness.
"When you confront a university or a church, you say, 'You're contributing to a situation that is really bad,'" Minter says. Connecting with those institutions educates people about the problem, he says.
"The idea in going after companies is they were a symbol, they were everywhere. It also gave people everywhere a way to do something."
Minter is pleased to see a new divestment campaign gearing up - and also happy to see it drawing inspiration from the anti-Apartheid movement.
Now living in Washington, D.C., Minter edits the online journal AfricaFocus, which examines issues facing the continent. One of the most pressing issues currently, of course, is global warming.
"The primary responsibility for global warming is that of the rich companies in the developed counties," he says. "The most vulnerable are those in the weakest economies. And Africa is the most vulnerable continent."