Climate change happens with or without human activity, but right now our species is in the driver’s seat with our foot on the climate-change accelerator when it should be on the brake.

This week, research from the University of Washington highlighted a significant danger caused by climate change, melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Fortunately, while university scientists have been exploring the depth of the challenges we face, students have been pushing for action to reduce the danger.

Divest UW, which represents 20 student organizations, has been meeting with the UW Board of Regents and working with the university’s Treasury Office to change the way the university engages with fossil-fuel companies through its endowment investments. It’s part of a national student movement to affect fossil-fuel industry by removing significant investments.

Stanford University announced last week that it will not directly invest in companies that make most of their money from coal extraction. Eleven other universities also have made that choice.

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We humans have been putting ourselves and other species at risk by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, causing warming that will change everything.

The most recent red flag comes from researchers at the University of Washington and at NASA whose studies say West Antarctica’s retreating ice sheet appears to have reached a point of no return. See the story by Seattle Times environmental reporter Craig Welch here: http://seati.ms/1gxUHxP.

And as the ice sheet disappears, sea level will rise by about four feet. Four feet might not seem like a lot until you consider how many people live at or very near sea level; then it gets scary. We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who would be directly affected, while almost everyone else would be affected indirectly. Not only that, but the change in West Antarctica will spur other melting that might cause oceans to rise 12 feet or more.

The good news is that people can choose to act now and slow the rate of retreat, so that instead of happening over 200 years, it might take 1,000 years for sea level to reach 12 feet.

The melting is not entirely our doing, but we’ve sped it up, and the scientists say we could slow it down by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and a prominent human contribution to warming (and to ocean acidification).

That’s where the student movement comes in as a potent force for change.

Wednesday, I spoke with one of the members of Divest UW, Alex Lenferna, a Fulbright Scholar and graduate student in philosophy at the UW. He said that while divestment is just one tool for affecting climate change, it is an important one.

He said the UW agreed in November to five global climate-change initiatives. The regents will allow the university to engage in shareholder activism to shape the choices of energy companies; invest more in clean and green energy; hire a research assistant to evaluate environmental, social and corporate governance; consider environmental, social and governance factors in decision making; and maintain a dialogue with Divest UW.

Those are great, but the big goal is divestment. The students will try again, presenting moral and economic reasons to support divestment at the regents’ June 12 meeting.

Lenferna said divestment makes economic sense because, “Otherwise, the university is betting on climate failure.” The profits of the fossil-fuel companies depend on our acting irresponsibly, he said. If we act to protect the environment and meet the internationally agreed upon goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, then the companies won’t be able to burn their reserves at a profit-producing level.

He said that the university has preferred shareholder engagement, saying divestment wouldn’t be as effective, but the student movement is in part inspired by successful divestment movements, particularly the one that contributed to the downfall of apartheid in South Africa.

Lenferna is South African, though too young (he’s 26) to remember those days. But he said it is significant that when Nelson Mandela got out of prison and visited the United States, his first stop was at the University of California, Berkeley, to thank students for their role in the divestment movement.

I asked him why students seem so active today on climate change. He said it’s partly that “it’s more clearly our future” that’s affected, but also because, “We’re fortunate to go to these wonderful universities where we can learn about these things, and where people are doing this wonderful research.”

And, he said, young people’s passion and ideals haven’t been dampened, so they are more willing to act. “This is arguably one of the most significant moral issues of our day.”

Maybe they’ll inspire the rest of us to look down the road and act with a greater sense of urgency.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com