Divestment is the tactic, climate justice is the goal

Students should urge the university to stop supporting the destructive fossil fuel industry

Sucharitha Yelimeli/Staff

Editor’s note: This op-ed was previously published by the California Student Sustainability Coalition.

April 9 through 11, students at UC Berkeley will be asked to vote on a referendum in support of fossil fuel divestment at Cal and across the UC system. Student support for the referendum will send a clear message to UC administrators that students at one of the leading public institutions in the world stand in solidarity with people across the country, demanding comprehensive sustainable investment policies that eliminate the environmental and social injustices perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry.

Introduced by a coalition of environmental organizations at Cal, including the Student Environmental Resource Center, the ASUC Sustainability team and Cal Students for Sustainable Investment, the referendum is the latest action in the Fossil Free divestment campaign at UC Berkeley to raise awareness about the importance of sustainable investment as a means to change the national and international dialogue and policy surrounding climate change. Katie Hoffman, SERC chief of staff, argues that “the tactic of divesting from fossil fuels is part of a larger international movement to advance climate justice and sustainable development — we want to send a clear message to the fossil fuel companies that our institutions will not invest money in an industry whose existence threatens our future.”

But why divest from the fossil fuel industry as a means to advance climate justice? Since the industrial revolution, human activities, primarily the extraction and use of fossil fuels, has accelerated carbon dioxide emissions, leading to the irreversible warming of our planet. According to a recent report by the World Bank entitled “Turn Down the Heat,” at the continued rate of growth and fossil fuel consumption, human beings will likely cause 2 to 4 degrees centigrade of warming by 2100. The effects of a warming planet have already manifested across the globe in the form of famine, rising sea levels, more frequent and intense weather patterns and species extinction. One only needs to think back to October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the U.S. eastern seaboard.

At the local level, whether it’s idling trucks in West Oakland or toxic explosions at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, frontline communities and fossil fuel industry workers are continuously exposed to noxious chemicals that contribute to public health issues ranging from asthma to terminal cancer. At the international level, climate negotiations have consistently stalled with little discussion about the disproportionate burdens climate change has and will continue to have on marginalized peoples from California to the Maldives. In the United States, denial of anthropogenic climate change is on the rise, as the government has failed to pass comprehensive climate policies that address mitigation, adaptation and our nation’s historical responsibility for producing roughly 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions since the 19th century despite having roughly 5 percent of the world’s population.

Higher education institutions across the nation hold more than $400 billion in endowment assets. To date, more than 256 universities, including schools with the largest endowments like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, are actively leading fossil fuel divestment campaigns to remove their tacit support for an industry whose public health, environmental and social impacts are felt by communities across the world.

Why divestment? History reminds us that student organizing around divestment has had a critical impact in advancing justice. In the 1980s, the UC system joined more than 150 institutions across the nation in divesting from companies profiting from South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime. Because of students like those organizing around fossil fuel divestment today, UC Berkeley also screens investments from companies benefiting from business in Sudan and from the tobacco industry.

That’s why come April 9 through 11, I’m voting for the referendum for the UC system to divest from fossil fuels — because when one does the math, it makes little sense to support divestment from our future by investing in the fossil fuel industry.

Chris Peeden is a fourth-year student in the College of Natural Resources.

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