During my first year at UC Berkeley, I joined the Fossil Free UC campaign for fossil fuel divestment. I was inspired by the group’s well-researched strategy and moral imperative to pressure the UC to pull its funds out of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies. Our ethical argument stated that continued fossil fuel extraction placed the climate, and millions of the world’s most vulnerable people, in harm’s way. We argued that by choosing to invest in these companies, the UC seemed to be choosing profit over the climate and the people.
Almost six years after I joined the Fossil Free UC campaign, I received news that the Los Angeles Times had published an op-ed, written by the UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher and UC Regent Richard Sherman, which announced that the UC system would divest its $13.4 billion endowment and $70 billion pension funds from fossil fuels. In their op-ed, Bachher and Sherman argued that activism had little to do with their decision. They distanced themselves from Fossil Free UC and posited that withdrawing investments in fossil fuels was a purely financial decision. Thus, they constructed a distinction between the moral plane on which the student activists organize and the financial plane in which their fiduciary obligations lie.
Bachher and Sherman’s assertions are misleading and dangerous. The young people in Fossil Free UC called out the UC’s priorities, and the majority of our arguments to the investment office focused on the fiscal benefits to divestment. We argued that fossil fuel investment would collapse under stranded assets, that volatility posed a daily risk and that proliferation of clean energy would ultimately undermine the fossil fuel sector. We additionally contended that fossil fuel extraction posed a serious threat to the pension fund that so many UC employees rely on for long-term financial security and the endowment that so many UC students rely on for scholarships.
Students have been telling the UC Board of Regents since 2013 that fossil fuels are a risky investment. In the six years following the first protest that I joined with Fossil Free UC, fossil fuel companies have significantly underperformed compared to the rest of the market. In fact, a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) noted that the fossil fuel industry has lagged over the last decade and performed the worst out of any S&P sector in 2018. The world’s biggest investment fund, BlackRock, lost a spit-out-your-tea $90 billion by investing in the largest oil and gas companies over the last 10 years.
Betting on fossil fuels was risky and financially irresponsible. In their op-ed, Bachher and Sherman state, “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk.” Why did it take the Board of Regents so long to divest? In their apparent haste to dismiss the work of student activists, Bachher and Sherman fail to explain why the regents gambled with the financial security of the very employees and students whose hard work pays their salaries.
Bachher and Sherman deserve some credit for leading the way on sustainable investment practices for universities. None of that would have been possible without the hard work of youth activists and faculty, however. Without the countless petitions, sit-ins, protests, backroom meetings and faculty votes, this monumental policy change would not have been possible.
A new generation of youth activists has taken up the mantle. Last week, Greta Thunberg and millions of young people led a global strike for climate action. The movement is just getting started, and young people have always been at its core. Fighting climate change and decarbonizing the economy present tremendous opportunities to create well-paying jobs in clean energy, to provide funding for communities battered by climate disasters to build back better, to invest in neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of environmental injustice for decades and to create a new narrative for a just transition.
While an op-ed from the people we painstakingly lobbied against won’t strip away the impact of the work that my peers and I did, it is up to those of us who were involved in this monumental win to set the record straight, if only to provide a manual for those who follow.
Wes Adrianson has a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from UC Berkeley.