Shadley: The University of Utah has a Moral Obligation to Divest from Fossil Fuels


Curtis Lin

Inversion in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (Photo by Curtis Lin | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


In the 1970s and 80s, student activists at the University of Utah advocated for the divestment of the university’s endowment from corporations that supported the oppressive policy of apartheid in South Africa. In 1987, the school finally decided to divest from all companies doing business in the country. At UC Berkeley, and colleges across the nation, similar student movements for divestment forced universities to reckon with their role in upholding a system of oppression. While the actual value of university investments was relatively unimpactful — the University of Utah only divested around $450,000 — the public displays of institutions struggling to realign their actions with their values were not. The dialogue around apartheid had shifted. The United States, and the individuals that comprised it, were forced to confront that their financial and moral commitments were contradictory. The actions of universities, and the national and international conversations they sparked, are partially credited for ending the oppressive form of government in 1994.

Now, 34 years later, the U is once again met with incompatible financial and moral commitments. Climate activists across the country are demanding that universities reconsider how their investments continue to justify the fossil fuel industry — an industry that undermines many of the social and ecological values that universities espouse. With the first step towards considering divestment taken in March, the U will make a decision this year to either divest from fossil fuels and spark meaningful change in the community or uphold the legitimacy of an industry that is crippling our planet. They cannot have both.

In environmentalist circles, people are fond of the saying that the best time to divest from fossil fuels was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is today. For the U, the second-best time to divest from fossil fuels was five years ago. In 2016, the U opted against divesting from fossil fuels despite the evidence that similar, or greater returns can be achieved through an environmentally friendly investment portfolio. Still, the thirdbest time to divest from fossil fuels is in the current session of the Academic Senate. With the threat of the climate crisis looming, the Academic Senate’s vote on April 26 of what to do with the $60 million to $90 million of the endowment invested in fossil fuels is marked by urgency. We simply cannot afford to wait five more years, or even one, for divestment to make the rounds through the university’s system. This is our best remaining shot at divestment with a genuine impact.

The U’s Sustainability Office website highlights the U’s commitment towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Elsewhere, the U has voiced its goal to reduce social inequities at the university and more generally. Any meaningful, comprehensive action towards addressing social inequities must also address the growing global environmental injustices, that will only continue to worsen with inaction on climate. Rather than maintaining relationships with companies like Rio Tinto, which commits environmental injustices towards Indigenous people, the U should strive to live up to the worthwhile values that they hold.  Instead, the university should reinvest those resources into corporations that look to lessen the climate crisis and, thus, create a more equitable world. Additionally, there are entire departments on campus, including mine, dedicated to addressing the climate crisis. In failing to demonstrate their commitment to their values, the U fails to fully support the work being done by faculty, students and staff to address climate change.

Contradictory and hypocritical behavior by leading institutions in a community justifies residents and other organizations of that community behaving in a similar manner. While individuals should not bear the brunt of the responsibility for fixing the climate crisis, an atmosphere of climate inaction allows individual politicians to skirt the responsibility for implementing climate policy that would have a meaningful impact. Instead of fostering a culture of climate negligence, the U should strive to be as free from fossil fuels as possible, and continuously improving. Then, by demonstrating, rather than simply speaking about, their commitment to a fossil-free world, they can inspire productive conversations about climate change in the same way the anti-apartheid movement on college campuses did.

The U, and the Academic Senate that represents it, can choose to either continue holding a cognitively dissonant position on fossil fuel use or it can serve as a catalyst for meaningful change. While the U’s $60 million to $90 million is a very, very small fraction of the equity held by fossil fuel companies, upholding their moral commitment to a world without fossil fuels is invaluable.


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