Students should band together to promote divestment

In December 2012, Bill McKibben, a prominent environmental writer and activist, spoke at the U’s climate rally. Salt Lake City was McKibben’s final stop on a nationwide speaking tour that was aimed at encouraging universities to withdraw their investments from the fossil fuel industry. McKibben’s argument for divestment is simple. Colleges teach their students that human-induced climate change is an imminent threat to our natural and social systems. University researchers and professors are quick to call out carbon as the culprit and shake their disapproving fingers at coal, oil and gas companies. Yet American universities hold an estimated total of $400 billion in fossil fuel investments. McKibben’s persuasive denunciation of fossil fuels inspired two students, Matt Kirkegaard and Max Stiefel, to initiate a divestment campaign here at the U.

The campaign fizzled out last year with the graduation of Stiefel and other key advocates. A few weeks ago, as I passed through the Union, pondering the fate of the movement, I was stopped by an energetic trio of students who asked me to sign their petition. “What’s it for?” I asked, half-heartedly. Upon hearing the word “divestment,” my eyes lit up, and I pulled a pen from my pocket before the enthused petitioner could finish his sentence. Adam Brandt, the leader of the group, agreed to sit down and discuss the details of the revived campaign the very next week.

Brandt explained how he was inspired to renew the U’s divestment charge after attending The People’s Climate March in New York. Energized by the experience of marching through Times Square with 400,000 other concerned citizens, Brandt rallied a crew of friends to revamp the U’s deflated divestment campaign.

Brandt and his group are currently gathering signatures in an effort to show student interest in the campaign and to hopefully compel ASUU to reconsider an amended resolution. Their petition, which is similar to the original, calls for the U to cease investing in fossil fuels immediately, and to completely withdraw all investments within the next five years. Brandt said he has received encouragement from some of his professors, but few faculty members are willing to express public support. Even the school’s Sustainability Resources leaders refused to explicitly back the petition.

The irony is almost laughable. Professors preach the need to combat climate change through social reform from pulpits paid for by the industries they denounce. They are unable or unwilling to take significant action for fear of biting the hand that feeds them and losing their research funding or even their jobs. So they quietly urge student-led initiatives to enact the changes that they advocate for from their fossil fuel sponsored classrooms. Thankfully, there are at least a few courageous faculty members who are willing to step up and speak out.

One of the biggest issues that last year’s divestment advocates faced involved proving that their resolution would not have an insurmountable, adverse impact on scholarships and tuition rates. In the long run, divestment would actually help the U’s finances, as renewables are expected to yield a higher ROI than fossil fuels in the near future. Additionally, the university could turn to alternative energy producers for the same scholarships and donations currently afforded by the fossil fuel industry. This makes total sense in theory, but the critics demand hard data. They understandably want to know how much money is currently invested in fossil fuels and what the viable alternative ventures are.

Stiefel and Kirkegaard could not overcome this challenge. According to a City Weekly article about Stiefel, the U’s investment portfolio is “opaque,” and it isn’t known how much money is tied up in fossil fuels. However, hope is on the horizon.

According to Brandt, the Socially Responsible Investments Committee, an ad-hoc organization created by the university to investigate the U’s portfolio, is currently analyzing the school’s investments in order to determine what it’s actually invested in and to assess the ethics of those assets. Brandt said that of his plan is to raise student awareness of the committee’s mission and to garnish support for their findings, which will be released in May. “We might find out that the U doesn’t have any money in fossil fuels,” he said.

The future of the divestment campaign here at the U is optimistic. With an invigorated core of proponents, led by an articulate environmental enthusiast and soon to be armed with a game-changing report, the U could join the ranks of American universities committed to a divestment from fossil fuels. We have an opportunity to cement ourselves as a national leader in the initiative to curb climate change.

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