Of Coal and Compost: 20 Years of Climate Organizing at University of Montana

Above: UM students march for fossil fuel divestment in 2015

Not long ago, returned to the University of Montana campus in Missoula for a visit for the first time in several years. I was a grad student at UM from 2011-2013, during which time I completed my master’s in Environmental Studies with a focus on environmental writing. I spent another two years in the town of Missoula, working on climate activist projects that involved coordinating closely with UM students. It was a bit surreal to be back on campus after several years away.

Many things were as I remembered: the dignified buildings ringing the UM Oval, the bustle of students going to and from class, the gleam of snow on the hills above the school. But there were also differences. Change is constant at universities, and there were new buildings that weren’t there seven years. But of more interest to me were fresh initiatives to increase campus sustainability that I noticed.

The dining area in UM’s University Center now sports signs announcing that most of the food packaging is compostable, as well as loudly labeled receptacles for compostable waste, recycling, and trash. The hope is that trash will bins will fill increasingly slowly as students learn to properly sort their waste and minimize the amount going into the landfill. These upgrades to food waste management are among the most obvious changes I noticed during my time on campus. But they weren’t the only recent changes related to sustainability.

UM’s website boasts of the school’s involvement in the Smart Buildings Initiative, a “collaborative effort that has been developed by students and staff across the Montana University System” to reduce campus energy use. At UM, a revolving loan fund supported by student fees contributed $100,000 to purchase smart energy meters as part of the SBI. And all new buildings at UM are certified Silver or higher on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. All these developments are encouraging. At the same time, they remind us of the limitations of such campus-based sustainability initiatives when viewed through the wider lens of events in Montana over the last couple decades.

The revolving fund that helped purchase UM’s smart meters was founded thanks to the activism of UM Climate Action Now, a club launched in the early 2000s when the nationwide youth climate movement was just beginning to emerge as a force in politics. The newly-formed Energy Action Coalition had recently launched the national Campus Climate Challenge, a campaign designed to enlist students all over the country in pushing their schools to adopt sweeping climate and clean energy policies. UM’s student-initiated fund was exactly the type of project the Campus Climate Challenge sought to support–and such initiatives eventually helped birth countless energy efficiency and clean energy projects at hundreds of colleges and universities. Yet, this was just the start of a flood of student climate activism that swept across campuses over the next decade and a half or so.

By the time I arrived at UM in 2011, the school had a Climate Action Plan that was supposed to chart a path to a low-carbon future. There was growing interest in expanding student climate activism beyond campus. In 2010, UM students and recent graduates–including my friend Zack Porter–played crucial roles in the birth of a regional campaign to oppose shipping “megaload”-sized pieces of equipment through Idaho and Western Montana to the Alberta tar sands. I moved to Missoula as another regional energy fight was heating up, this time over coal.

Mining giant Arch Coal had been granted a lease to Southeast Montana’s state-owned Otter Creek tracts, where the company hoped to extract 20 million tons of coal per year over the course of two decades. Farmers from the affected area and members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe did an inspiring job galvanizing opposition to the Otter Creek Mine. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, communities organized to stop construction of the export terminals it was widely assumed Arch’s mine would supply. Despite this great work, the mine’s eventual completion was treated almost as a foregone conclusion in Montana political circles. After all, it had backing from a multibillion dollar industry and most of the state’s top elected officials. My role in the Otter Creek fight was to help bring Western Montana communities fully into the fray.

In late 2011, I was part of a group of UM students who launched the Blue Skies Campaign, a grassroots effort to oppose coal exports and coal export mining. We organized marches, rallies, and even civil disobedience to protest the Otter Creek Mine. And while people of all ages joined the movement to stop Arch’s mine, students were integral to its success. In 2016, after facing many setbacks in Montana and the collapse of most coal export projects on the West Coast, Arch gave up and withdrew its application to build the Otter Creek Mine. It was a victory for climate activists throughout the region.

Campaigns against the megaloads and the Otter Creek Mine exemplify how students in the 2010s successfully channeled energy from campus-based climate organizing efforts into opposing large fossil fuel infrastructure projects. This work was necessary, because initiatives like the Campus Climate Challenge would never have a big enough impact, on their own, to avoid catastrophic climate change. It’s important to note most architects of the Challenge were well aware of this and intended all along that it serve as a stepping stone to other kinds of student activism.

In 2013, I graduated with my master’s just as an exciting new phase in student climate organizing was taking off at in the US and all over the world. A campaign to divest from fossil fuels at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania had exploded into a global mass movement with help from groups including 350.org and the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Over the next ten years, the divestment movement spread to not only colleges and universities, but churches, foundations, and state and local governments that cut ties with the fossil fuel industry be refusing to invest in the top 200 coal, oil, and gas companies. Divesting drove home the message that companies whose business model is built on destroying a livable future for humanity should be shunned and treated as pariahs.

A vibrant divestment campaign that eventually developed at UM did not succeed in convincing the university to divest–largely due to opposition from members of the administration and the UM Foundation who worried about offending large donors connected with the fossil fuel industry. However, the campaign did provide hundreds of students with a gateway into climate organizing. Meanwhile, despite making real progress with some sustainable campus initiatives, the university has fallen short on the more ambitious early goals codified in the school’s Climate Action Plan. That document called for achieving campus-wide carbon neutrality by 2020–something that clearly hasn’t happened.

The fact that UM hasn’t divested from fossil fuels or eliminated its carbon footprint doesn’t mean the efforts of activists who campaigned for those goals were pointless. On the contrary; campus sustainability efforts had reduced the volume of climate-warming emissions entering the atmosphere from UM’s operations, and the divestment campaign helped frame the climate crisis in starkly moral terms. But there is clearly much work remaining to be done for the climate at UM and at hundreds of other schools across the US. Indeed, the challenges facing this one university serve as a useful microcosm of events now playing out on a national level.

The early youth climate movement put a major focus on securing carbon neutrality pledges from the administrations at schools like University of Montana. However, the reality is that these goals will be difficult if not impossible to reach in the absence of societal-level changes. We need to transform how we generate electricity, grow food, and get from place to place, not just on campuses but everywhere. Student organizing against large fossil fuel projects like the Otter Creek Mine can help tip the balance toward the clean energy future we all need. Simultaneously, movements like divestment are reframing the actions of fossil fuel companies as morally unacceptable. We need each of these kinds of efforts, as well as locally-based sustainability projects at colleges and other institutions.

Today, many schools like UM have made at least some progress toward reducing their carbon footprints, divestment has redirected trillions of dollars away from the fossil fuel industry, and the idea of significantly increasing US coal exports is mostly dead. Yet, in some ways the situation in Montana is more perilous for the climate than ever; the Governor’s Mansion and both houses of the state legislature are controlled by a Republican trifecta that seems bent on dismantling environmental laws. The successes and setbacks encountered on UM’s journey to a carbon-free future highlight the kind of progress that can be achieved at a strictly campus level, as well as the need to confront larger systems that keep us dependent on fossil fuels.

As I watched students in UM’s University Center clear their tables and deposit leftover packaging to be composted, I was reminded of how two decades of youth-led climate organizing have led us to this moment. What changes will the next twenty years bring, at this school and so many others?

Want to learn more about the youth climate movement? Check out my recently-released book, Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change.

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