Extinction Rebellion Columbia University, a climate activism organization, announced the start of a hunger strike beginning Monday in a letter delivered to University President Lee Bollinger that morning.
The letter outlined that unless the University agrees to its demands for a more sustainable campus, the group’s strike will continue until Nov. 22. In addition to the hunger strike, members of the group are participating in a sit-in at Butler Library. The campaign comes as part of a larger push from the global grassroots Extinction Rebellion movement to push for change from Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and other progressive lawmakers.
Student groups have organized around Columbia’s role in addressing climate change in the past; in 2016, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice occupied Low Library for eight days to push Columbia to divest from fossil fuels. The University ultimately divested from thermal coal producers in 2017.
In 2017, Columbia also enacted a sustainability plan which outlined goals, including the reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and progression towards a 30 percent carbon intensity reduction. A more comprehensive Sustainability Report is set to be published by 2020. Subsequently, earlier this semester, Bollinger announced the creation of a Climate Change Task Force to further evaluate future goals, including the potential consideration of a climate change school.
However, citing that these current commitments are not enough, Extinction Rebellion’s specific demands include declaring a climate emergency, committing to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, divestment from fossil fuels, and forming a community assembly designed to keep the University accountable and include community members in discussions regarding climate change.
While four core strikers plan to stay at Butler, other members of the organization will partake in the hunger strike in solidarity and join the sit-in throughout the week. The strike was organized as part of a wider international effort by Extinction Rebellion, which invited its chapters across the globe to organize hunger strikes this week.
Extinction Rebellion is currently in talks with University administrators to set up a meeting. However, a date has yet to be set. The strikers said they are unsure that the University will meet their demands due to what they attribute as its historical unwillingness to commit to divestment from fossil fuels.
“I think we are hopeful that they will take this opportunity to act responsibly and in alignment with their mission to make the community and the world a better place. But there have been folks who have been pushing this University to divest for a long time and in our analysis, they have been, so far, unwilling to disentangle themselves from the financial incentives of fossil fuels,” Michael Cusack, TC ’21 and a member of Extinction Rebellion, said.
At a town hall held by the newly-created task force, Director of the Earth Institute Alex Halliday noted that the University is not ready to take a concrete step at the moment, but considers divestment to be “extremely reasonable.” Extinction Rebellion’s announcement noted Halliday’s response as aligned to the goals of fighting climate change, characterizing divestment as an “absolute necessity” given the fossil fuel industries’ decision to expand despite the knowledge of industry’s death toll.
Climate activists also anxiously await the Task Force’s extensive report on Columbia’s sustainability practices, which will be released by Dec. 1. Alongside a review of Columbia’s environmental impact, the report will recommend practices that the University should follow in order to reduce its carbon footprint and improve its impact on the environment.
Cusak emphasized the necessity for Columbia to view climate change as an urgent and immediate crisis.
“The cause for the severity of action is due to the severity of the crisis. The issue is that we need to be talking and thinking about this as an emergency—as a crisis—as something that is causing to lose family members and homes,” Cusack said. “Severity will only grow will time and inaction. The hunger strike is a very visual representation of the costs of business as usual.”