By T.J. Demos, Professor, Department of History of Art and Visual Culture, Director, Center for Creative Ecologies, UC Santa Cruz
I write to express support for Fossil Free UC and their ongoing campaign to get UC to divest from fossil fuels.
Over the last four years, the student members of FFUC have struggled to raise the alarm over the fact that UC continues to invest financially in, and profit from, the very energy system that is placing our planet and its future at grave risk of catastrophic climate change. In doing so, UC has failed to demonstrate its environmental leadership and contradicted its principled ethical convictions as a public educational institution dedicated to the present and future wellbeing of its students, faculty, staff, and wider community. Indeed, how can the university pledge its support, as it has done so in recent years, to advancing carbon neutrality and sustainable practices, on the one hand, while, on the other, it actively invests its financial resources in the carbon-positive and unsustainable fossil fuel sector that is wreaking havoc on Earth’s natural systems?
Given the distinctive mission of the University of California — including its pledge “to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge” — it appears all the more paradoxical that UC would both jeopardize precisely those “long-term societal benefits” by financially supporting the industries responsible for destructive climate change, and muddy the waters of its ethical commitment to advanced knowledge by contradicting that knowledge in practice.
It’s true that on March 15, 2017 at an Investment Subcommittee meeting of the UC Regents, UC Regent Richard Sherman and UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Bachher announced an important act of divestment from the UC portfolio: $150 million was withdrawn from Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners, two corporations responsible for building the Dakota Access Pipeline, targeted by Indigenous water protectors over the last year for threatening their sovereign lands. That divestment joins an earlier decision to remove funds from coal and tar sands industries, as announced in September 2015. These are admirable steps forward for sure. However, there remain approximately $2.6 billion of UC funds currently invested in fossil fuels.
Intensifying the pressure during the week of April 24, 2017, students affiliated with Fossil Free Cal at UC Berkeley staged a sit-in at Sproul Hall to demand that UC divest these remaining funds by 2025. With similar actions planned across the UC-wide system, including at UC Santa Cruz, students are boldly turning to nonviolent direct action in a collective effort to gain visibility for their struggle and to make their voices heard. Such action follows concerted efforts to meet with Regent Sherman, who has allegedly indicated he embraces the cause of FFUC, even while no further divestment steps have been made or promised. The campaign has also called for a UC-wide coordinated call-in to Sherman’s office during 2017’s Winter quarter to advance the issue. After years of campaigning, during which the science of climate change has become ever more indisputable and the predictions of near-future rapid warming increasingly grave, these students are realizing that time is running out.
The divestment argument, meanwhile, has always been crystal-clear and indisputable on multiple counts: it’s ethical (one shouldn’t profit from world-destroying systems); it’s ecological (re-investment in renewables will help support the flourishing of biodiversity and the functioning of eco-systems); it’s just (fossil fuel corporations, historically, tend to site their operations in impoverished minority communities, exploiting disenfranchisement, perpetuating climate injustice, and continuing the legacy of colonial-based extraction on indigenous lands); it makes financial sense (why invest in stranded assets, in an outdated energy system?); it’s educational (UC has a unique opportunity to model what a real environmental leader looks like for the generations we’re now educating); and it’s political (investment is never not political, and now is the time to position ourselves on the right side of history, rather than with Trump and his dirty-energy allies). Students are literally fighting for their lives and their futures.
Of course divestment is no guarantee for an end to fossil-fuel energy use. However, it does add to the momentum of the mounting financial pressure, joining leading universities such as Harvard who, recently, have chosen to demonstrate climate action leadership by divesting from fossil fuels, joining other exemplary educational institutions, cities, and faith-based communities. It is time to learn from our own students that it is nothing less than morally reprehensible to continue to financially benefit from the very system that is threatening the ongoingness of life as we know it. Students, faculty, alumni, university workers, and community members can only support these efforts and join in solidarity in the struggle to guarantee a livable future — one of human and multispecies climate justice.