On May 18, Nathan Prisco, a graduate student in Chemical Engineering, wrote an op-ed entitled “Why UCSB Should Not Divest From Fossil Fuels”, or, as it might have been called, “What I Still Don’t Understand About Divestment.” As a fellow graduate student, studying climate change in the Geography Department, I’d like to take the opportunity to respond, point-by-point:
Claim 1: “[The] University of California system is in a powerful position to influence the fossil fuel industry as an important shareholder.” While the UC is a force to be reckoned with, there are a few problems with this statement. First of all, the UC doesn’t hold enough investments in any one company to significantly influence companies via its shares. Second, this tactic has been tried, and in this case, companies will not listen to a shareholder engagement strategy that asks them to forgo their bottom line and completely restructure their business model.
Claim 2: “Previous divestment efforts have proved largely ineffective as a strategy to curtail undesirable practices among corporations.” Many critics of divestment keep conveniently forgetting that the goal of divestment is not about shifting the money and starving the industry of stock value, but rather about the immense cultural shift that results from a respected and powerful institution like the UC deciding to no longer invest in companies that are threatening the futures of the students of their intuition. Making such a claim erases the history that divestment played in bringing on the end of apartheid in South Africa, in pushing the UC to no longer be a passive observer of human rights abuses but to instead stand against white supremacy. On Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States after being released from prison he thanked the students at UC Berkeley for their roles in the divestment from apartheid movement. Finally, the tobacco divestment campaign played a crucial role in the public relations struggle over the health impacts of tobacco and directly helped shift cultural norms around smoking. Today, thanks to the cultural shift divestment brought about, it would be scandalous for a university to invest in tobacco.
Claim 3: “The mission of the energy sector is to efficiently and safely implement proven technologies in pursuit of affordable energy.” The fossil fuel industry exists to meet its bottom line. This industry is responsible for oil trains which have derailed and killed innocent bystanders; for increased rates of asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular illness in communities living near power plants; for the mass disregard for people whose livelihoods depends on their environment, as seen with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the destruction of native lands for the production of tar sands, and the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. We cannot claim that these companies exist for the public good when Exxon created a massive disinformation campaign, hiring Big Tobacco’s top PR firms to discredit the best climate scientists. Why, exactly, should the UC be investing in that level of destruction?
Claim 4: “We must carefully articulate what it is we hope to achieve…” I applaud this point and the divest-invest movement has garnered so much public support because it doesn’t only focus on what is bad, but also actively pursues investment alternatives into climate justice solutions. This includes investing in community choice energy, education, and renewable startups. As a society, we need to get better at articulating our vision for what kind of world we want to live in; we need to divest from the problem and invest in the solutions.
Claim 5: “On the other hand, the Obama administration strongly encouraged the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a transitional technology to the renewable age.” Fracking has no place in the low-carbon, just transition that we need as a society. The technology was developed to extract the little remaining oil and gas from nearly depleted wells and has been linked to increases in the frequency of earthquakes, the contamination and waste of precious groundwater, and the destruction of local economies in the boom and bust cycle. Moreover, the fuels being extracted by fracking are still contributing to the climate crisis: natural gas releases methane which, while having a shorter atmospheric residence time, has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide, and in California, fracking is used to extract dense, tar-like oil that releases far more carbon dioxide than conventional oil.
Claim 6: “UC system has a responsibility to its students and to the California taxpayers.” This statement is absolutely true. Investments in fossil fuels are risky because much of the industry’s reserves will become stranded assets, and hence financially unviable, leading to what experts in the field call a “carbon bubble” when appropriate climate legislation is finally introduced. The UC’s responsibility and its mission – both to the students who must be forced to live with the consequences of climate change, and the people of California who have overwhelmingly demanded climate action – should be aligned with its investment practices.
How, then, can the UC defend actively investing in companies that are driving climate change which has been attributed by brilliant climate scientists to contributing to the California drought, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, all bearing heavy costs for this country?
Students have been actively lobbying for fossil fuel divestment since August 2012, have sat in closed-door meetings with Chancellors, Regents, investment officers, and sustainability officers, and have garnered the support of over 700 faculty UC-wide, 9 A.S. senate resolutions, 3 Academic Senate resolutions, and now the support of 4 Chancellors. Suggesting that the campaign should focus more on being “constructive” and “lobby” instead of using civil disobedience ignores the entire history of the campaign.
But I don’t blame Prisco for buying into that idea. Our history books have an unfortunate tendency of tidying up how real transformation happens. Systemic change – such as civil rights, the New Deal, and women’s suffrage – doesn’t happen because a group of people politely sit down in a meeting with key decision makers. It happens because those who dare to dream negotiate and demonstrate until human and environmental rights are achieved.
The fossil fuel industry owns five times more coal, oil, and gas than even the most conservative climate scientists suggest is safe to burn, meaning that 80% of fossil fuels must remain below ground if we are to have any chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. Combatting climate change and the catastrophic poisoning of our communities, water, air, and land has no easy solution. Meaningful change is a long and bumpy road, and Chancellor Yang, accompanied by the chancellors from UCSC, UCSD, and UCD, should be applauded for making bold commitments that are appropriate for the severity of the crises we face. While divestment won’t solve the climate crisis nor repay those who have been sacrificed in the name of cheap energy, it is a meaningful catalyst for change.
Emily Williams is a graduate student in Geography.