Aaron Serianni ’25 was in linguistics class when he heard the news.
The University announced Sept. 29 it is dissociating from — or ending financial relationships with — 90 fossil-fuel companies, and divesting from all publicly traded fossil-fuel companies.
A few moments later, Serianni was on a conference call with his colleagues at Divest Princeton, a climate-change activist group run by alumni and students. They couldn’t believe the University had taken such a dramatic move after years of talk.
“Being an activist, you have to take everything from the University with some cynicism,” Serianni told PAW. “But Princeton really did take a big step towards what the students have been pushing for more than a decade.”
For sure, the University is to be credited. The new policy, approved by the Board of Trustees in September, in many ways goes further than that of any other higher-ed institution. Others have divested from fossil-fuel holdings, but Princeton is also dissociating from companies it said are among the largest contributors to carbon emissions — those active in the thermal coal or tar sands segments.
Cutting business ties with some of the world’s worst polluters is an important leadership moment for Princeton and, yes, the world.
But does the University get to this point without activists, alumni, and faculty forcing the issue? Starting in 2014, a string of student groups called on the University to take more aggressive climate action. Divest Princeton became a leading voice shortly after it was founded in 2019, submitting petitions, making recommendations, and organizing protests. And the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) authored a report in May outlining many of the actions adopted by the University.
“No school has announced any partial or full divestment without students pushing for it, or the community pushing for it,” said Serianni, who is Divest Princeton’s co-coordinator along with Nate Howard ’25. “It definitely would not have happened here if not for activists.”
And there is more pushing to be done, says Serianni.
One of the most important pieces of Princeton’s announcement is that it will create a fund to offset research resources lost because of dissociation. In March, the CPUC reported that in the previous five years the University had received $26.2 million from 11 gas and oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and BP.
Exxon Mobil is among the 90 companies targeted for dissociation, but BP is not because it doesn’t meet the criteria recommended to the CPUC by a faculty panel and now adopted by the University. Serianni says Princeton must eliminate all research funding from fossil-fuel companies.
“Princeton showed that these things people claim to be impossible are possible,” he said. “There’s no downside for them to stop accepting fossil-fuel money. Even better research will happen. They’ll be unencumbered from these grants. There’s no reason why Princeton can’t end research funding from BP tomorrow.”
Indeed, climate-change action must be as quick as it is dramatic. Princeton took another important step in 2019 with its Sustainability Action Plan, which aims to have the University at zero emissions by 2046. What can it do next?
“Princeton is doing a lot for the climate,” Serianni said. “As a student, you see this and think that’s really good, and I know Princeton has the power to deal with these things. How can we encourage them to do more?”
Peter Barzilai s'97 is editor of Princeton Alumni Weekly.