On Feb. 26, students from Fossil Free UC met with the UC Regents’ Committee on Investments in Los Angeles to present the case for full divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
With the winds of the Paris COP21 talks in December behind the environmental movement’s back, the students were optimistic that the meeting could be a turning point for the university’s relationship with the toxic fossil fuel industry. After all, the effects of climate change are already ravaging communities both on a local and global scale.
2015 was the hottest year on record, and 2016 will likely only be warmer.
Now isn’t the time for idleness.
Unfortunately, however, the students’ plea fell upon deaf ears. Regent Paul Wachter, in his last meeting as chair on the committee, responded vaguely to Fossil Free UC’s demands, calling divestment a “difficult issue” and saying that the UC has already done more than most schools with regards to climate change.
Over the past three years, Fossil Free UC has repeatedly brought up the question of divestment to the regents, and time and time again, we have been sidelined and ignored. Climate change and the resulting destruction of low-income communities of color doesn’t wait for the next noncommittal meeting or half-hearted pledge. It’s an issue that affects people’s lives today.
But there is still hope that the UC’s stance on divestment could change — and soon. Just this month, Regent Richard Sherman is taking over for Wachter as the new chair of the Committee on Investments, giving him huge amounts of power to make the changes we need.
Sherman can side with the global leaders of COP21, UC students, faculty and alumni by aligning UC investments with a just and sustainable future; or he can side with an increasingly obsolete fossil fuel industry by denying the UC of real climate leadership. UC students demand to know from Sherman: Whose side are you on?
By supporting divestment, Sherman would be joining a robust and growing social movement that has broad support from students, faculty and community members at UC Berkeley and other universities across the nation. Since the global fossil free campaign began in 2012, more than 500 institutions have fully or partially divested from fossil fuels, totalling $3.4 trillion worth of assets being withheld from coal and/or oil and gas companies.
UC students have repeatedly rallied the UC regents to set a precedent for ethical investments. In the 1980s, student protests successfully pressured the UC regents to divest $3.1 billion from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. In 2001, the UC regents voted to permanently exclude investments into tobacco, citing financial risk and health effects of tobacco use. In 2006, UC students through the UC Sudan Divestment Task force convinced the regents to divest $2.6 billion from Sudanese companies with ties to the Darfur genocide. In this past year, students convinced the UC to divest $200 million from coal and tar sands companies and $30 million from private prisons.
Divestment from coal and tar sands is a start, but the UC still has billions invested in the top-200 fossil fuel companies. These oil and gas corporations continue to devastate California, and it is morally unconscionable for our university to continue funding climate denial and environmental injustice. The future that UC is supposed to be preparing us for is increasingly fragile and ignores the needs of those most impacted by climate change, which tend to be people of color and low-income communities. By investing in dirty, outdated fossil fuels, the UC is ignoring the intersectionality between environmental justice and social justice, and it is not creating space for an equitable and inhabitable world.
Additionally, it is hypocritical for the very university that teaches its students about the link between fossil fuels and climate change, the very university that is pushing to be carbon-neutral by 2025, to also invest in the companies responsible for the climate crisis.
Beyond that, investing in fossil fuels places the UC on top of a carbon bubble that is doomed to pop. Fossil fuel companies currently hold five times as much carbon in their reserves as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change deem as safe to burn. That means the UC is investing in companies with trillions of dollars in stranded assets and stocks that are doomed to collapse as the globe transitions to a less carbon-intensive economy.
It’s with these justifications in mind that Fossil Free UC demands Sherman to take a stand on divestment. Does he side with students, faculty alumni and the broader UC community or with an extractive and deadly industry that is destroying our future? For too long, the regents have been able to shirk their responsibility to UC students. There is too much at risk to do nothing so in the coming months, that is going to change.
Tyler Jacobson is a member of Fossil Free Cal.