Despite opponents, case for UC fossil fuel divestment remains strong

William Pan/Staff

UC Berkeley professor of law Steven Davidoff Solomon’s Feb. 10 piece in the New York Times DealBook, “Colleges Use Anti-Apartheid Strategies to Battle Fossil Fuels,” makes a number of arguments about the futility of the University of California divesting its $3 billion holdings in fossil fuels.

Almost all of them are false or easily refuted.

After praising the success of the South African divestment campaign in the 1980s (a campaign in which one of us participated, the other not being born yet…), he argues that “unfortunately for the fossil fuel divestment movement, times have changed.” He argues that universities simply can’t afford not to invest in the lucrative fossil fuel industry without hurting the bottom line.

Wrong. A variety of independent analyses, which the UC system is certainly aware of, now conclude that divestment would have a negligible impact on the portfolio. This also ignores the much larger reality that students are already being laden with huge financial debt: Why would we then want to hand them a future plagued by horrendous and even more costly climate damage?

Solomon’s next argument is that divesting from fossil fuels is at odds with our proper academic mission and would put the university on “a slippery slope … once an endowment starts divesting for noneconomic reasons, it could be a very steep hill indeed. Investing would be dictated by a cacophony of political interests instead of sound economic principles.”

This is bad logic, especially in view of the fact that the university has recently committed itself to the scientifically driven and morally responsible goal of going carbon neutral in its operations by 2025 — the very president of the UC system has decided this is such an important issue that she’ll make it a top and very visible priority. How can there be a slippery slope when the university’s administration has already pegged the drastic reduction of carbon emissions as one of its biggest promises for a better world?

Faculty, students and administrators are now engaged in an exciting real-life experiment to show that a sustainable, low-carbon university with a quarter of a million students is ecologically and economically viable. This initiative entwines our social and academic missions in a quest for innovative leadership in creating climate-change solutions that will have ripple effects well beyond the university, state or nation. The Fossil Free UC campaign is not just about turning off the dirty energy tap that has brought us to the precipice of climate chaos. It is also about a reinvestment of our vast human capital in the development of the clean energy world that we must create in the next quarter century, spanning the crucial years of life in which our current students will go out into the world to make their ways and to make their marks.

Finally, we face the “it doesn’t achieve anything” view that a single university divesting cannot possibly influence the behavior or outsized power of the fossil fuel industry, which, after all, consists of some of the wealthiest corporations in the history of the world. Solomon worries about the lack of economic impact of divestment and concludes, “Ending global warming may be a noble and worthwhile goal, but perhaps the activists should try instead to lobby Congress and those that directly make policy.”

At first, it may seem counterintuitive that a campaign about divestiture might have very little economic impact. But divestment, even in the South Africa apartheid days, has always been about making a social and political impact through divesting, with potentially great consequences for the way we live on the planet (i.e., we need to think of economics now in light of the facts of climate change). We cannot fight the fossil fuel industry with money (they have too much of it), and when they also determine the main direction of most legislation in Congress, it’s difficult to see where conventional lobbying will get us.

So we turn to divestment. Divesting takes away the fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, pushing beyond lobbying and creating a movement of political pressure through the influence of public opinion and institutional culture. As this movement grows — and make no mistake, if the university divests, it will bring a tidal wave of change — we will have so many institutions saying, “We cannot and will not burn fossil fuels at this rate any longer,” that inaction on climate change will come to be seen for what it is: irresponsible and dangerous.

That’s how divestment builds the political climate for climate action and strict regulation in the public interest. To narrowly stress the economics and to speak very little to the political and social impacts of divestment is to devalue the movement’s potential to influence public opinion. That’s where the real power lies in divestment and where we hold our world’s leaders accountable.

John Foran is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, the co-director of the Institute of Climate Action and Theory and a founding member of the Climate Justice Project. Victoria Fernandez is a UC Berkeley senior and a co-founder of the campaign Fossil Free Cal.

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