Today UC administrators confirmed that the University of California will be going fossil free at their quarterly UC Regents’ meeting. After a 6-year campaign, led by UC students and faculty, the UC will be divesting their $13.4 billion endowment and $70 billion pension funds from fossil fuel companies. The confirmation is a tremendous victory for students and faculty that have been pressuring the UC to divest since 2013. Divestment on this scale sends a signal to all other institutions that the time for fossil fuels dominating our culture, our politics, and our economy is over.
This is the largest divestment of any public institution ever and it puts the pressure on large private endowments like Harvard’s to follow in the UC’s steps. Publishing in the LA Times yesterday morning, UC investment administrators wrote:
“We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk. That’s why we will have made our $13.4-billion endowment “fossil free” as of the end of this month, and why our $70-billion pension will soon be that way as well.”
The UC will be going fossil free because, as UC fossil fuel divestment campaigners have been telling the UC Regents since 2013, fossil fuels are a risky investment. Indeed, had the UC divested when we first brought up the university’s dangerous exposure to fossil fuel assets, the university would likely have saved a lot of money. (Economist have demonstrated how an S&P investment 500 portfolio that excluded fossil fuel assets would have performed better than a portfolio that included fossil fuels). Still, better late than never!
But there are other far more important reasons why this win is so significant: it is a victory in the culture wars against the fossil fuel industry. When we divest, we broadcast the message that students, young people, and educators will not stand idly by while the fossil fuel industry threatens our futures as it recklessly continues to extract five times more coal, oil and gas than even the most conservative estimates say is safe to burn. Eighty percent of fossil fuels must remain in the ground for a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius in global heating. Extraction of more fossil fuels in a time of climate emergency is a moral obscenity. Investment in extraction is complicity in that obscenity.
So, whether the UC administrators like it or not, and they gave us every reason to believe they do not, this victory places our university on the right side of history. As 350.org’s Bill McKibben said at the from the very beginning: “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” And, as frontlines communities most exposed to climate change and fossil fuel pollution went on to remind us: “If it is wrong to pollute communities, then it is wrong to profit from that pollution.”
For too long, the UC profited from the fossil fuel companies that have polluted the health and livelihoods of communities here in California and all around the world, and especially low-income communities and communities of color. It has also, perversely, profited from wrecking the very stability of the future for which it is supposed to prepare its students and generations of UC students to come. No more! The university is divesting from climate destruction.
In a bizarre twist, however, UC administrators seem unwilling to take credit, and even less willing to give credit to students and faculty, for this enormous moral victory against the industry. Surrendering what, years ago, Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now,” which drives so many movements for social change, the UC seems content to settle for “the fierce urgency of not looking too political.” They would prefer history remembers them as cold-hearted calculators of economic cost and benefit, rather than as leaders who stood up for their students during a time of climate emergency, when children are taking to the streets to plead with adults to stop this madness because we have just 11 years left to cut emissions in half. In the words of the UC’s administrators, “So be it; we are part of a university system where diversity of opinion thrives.”
Well, Fossil Free UC and all the students and faculty involved in the divestment campaign are going to claim this victory that they so rightly deserve. Divestment would not have happened at the UC were it not for students and faculty organizing and apply pressure on administrators. As the climate crisis looms and millions of young people around the world go on climate strike next week, let us remember that it is people power that will halt climate catastrophe.
The Fossil Free UC campaign formed in late 2012. After 2 years of meetings, committees, petitions, research, reports, and educating our communities, it became clear that UC administrators would not engage with us as equals. So we changed our strategy. Mobilizing hundreds of students across UC campuses we held campus referenda, rallies, phone-ins, sit-ins, and direct action. In 2017, over 400 students joined UCSB’s divestment sit-in over 4 days. By 2019, 8 UC campus student governments, 4 UC Chancellors, and 78% of UC faculty have all called upon the UC to divest from fossil fuels.
Throughout this campaign we stayed focused on our core messages: We are living in a climate emergency. The solutions to it are incompatible with the longevity of the fossil fuel industry’s core business practices. As young people, it is our future the fossil fuel companies are jeopardizing. Meanwhile, in solidarity with frontlines communities, it is our friends and allies whose present is most threatened by climate change and fossil fuel pollution. Fossil fuel divestment is financially prudent, scientifically mandated, and morally imperative.
Let there be no doubt, therefore, that the UC’s divestment is a victory for all of us who stand opposed to the greed of the fossil fuel industry which, for decades, has polluted our politics with climate denial, our homes with toxins, and our climate with greenhouse gases.
But the work is far from over. This is a climate emergency and we cannot claim a true victory at the UC until the money we’ve moved out of the extractive fossil fuel economy is reinvested in a regenerative, restorative, and just economy. Communities from Richmond, California, to Jackson, Mississippi, to Black Mesa in the Navajo Nation, are leading the way with solutions that decentralize, democratize, decolonize and decarbonize our energy systems. The UC divested from fossil fuels saying it wanted to reinvest in climate solutions and energy transitions. It is up to us to ensure that these are investments in just climate solutions and a just energy transition.
After a well-earned celebration, we will also turn attention to new campaigns at UC, including holding the university carbon neutral goals accountable by 2025. We will return to our work with renewed vigor and passion in the knowledge that when we fight, we win.
Theo LeQuesne submitted this op ed on behalf of Fossil Free UC.
Teaser photo credit: By Coolcaesar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0