UW Students Press for Divestment

A group of University of Washington (UW) students—led by the College Greens and the Student Association for Green Environments (SAGE)—is calling on the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels and take concrete action against climate change.

Divest UWTwo students leading the charge of the “Divest UW” campaign are Sarra Tekola from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and Robert Marsh from the Program on the Environment. They and other supporters are running a petition and gathering further backing, on top of their endorsement from the ASUW Student Senate, in the run-up to a presentation before the UW Board of Regents on Thursday, June 13, at 12:30 p.m., and a simultaneous rally on the HUB lawn. Regents meetings are open to the public, and organizers are hoping to pack the room to exercise their political voice as students in favor of divestment.

What is divestment? Championed by Bill McKibben and 350.org on the national scale, the divestment movement seeks to effect broad social change by shifting investment away from fossil fuel companies and other direct drivers of climate change. McKibben is widely known for his “Do the Math” tour, during which he traveled the country stressing that if we’re going to keep global temperatures rising less than 2°C, then we can only allow about 565 gigatons more CO2 into the atmosphere in the next four decades or so before reaching a tipping point, after which life as we know it will be fundamentally altered. However, says Tekola, the amount of carbon contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of national oil companies and private corporations is about five times higher than that—roughly 2,796 gigatons—and burning all of it would have disastrous results.

The Divest UW campaign, in turn, is focusing on the UW’s reputation for environmental sustainability and stewardship—and how taking a stand on divestment would make a huge statement about the importance of investing in a cleaner energy future right now.

It’s true, says Tekola, that the UW’s direct investment in fossil fuel companies—which is variable, but right now represents about $10 million of a total $2.2 billion endowment—won’t make a big individual impact on the profitability of these companies. But hurting stock prices isn’t the immediate goal. The deeper aim, she says, is to revoke their social license and to put public pressure on these industries. And the only way to combat the financial and political leverage these companies hold is with a mass movement, and with universities at the forefront of social change. Seven other colleges have already divested, and another 300 other campuses have campaigns going on just like Divest UW, so the momentum is growing. On top of that, Tekola says that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has pledged to divest the city’s general fund from fossil fuels.

Divest UWTekola and Marsh cite multiple studies that divestment won’t harm the UW’s endowment or endanger its financial viability. To the contrary, they argue that divestment will put UW on safer long-term financial ground. The Divest UW campaign is designed to hedge against increased risk and potential profit losses, and to preserve the health of the endowment for future generations of students.

A similar divestment tactic, says Tekola,  was effective with the tobacco industry, which had stymied health science, label laws and taxes through incredible congressional influence until scientists and universities joined forces to sound the alarm of the dangers of cigarettes.

Now, the Divest UW campaign is hoping to overcome the assault against climate change science. Their message is clear: There is no possible way fossil fuel industries can continue business as usual while preserving a stable climate, and investing in a business-as-usual scenario presents incredible financial, social and ethical risks to the UW endowment.

“Climate change isn’t something that only affects polar bears,” says Tekola. “It will submerge Harbor Island and the shores of West Seattle and South Park, and we are already seeing the impacts. Last year the Atlantic Ocean was in the subways of New York City, on top of it being one of the hottest years on records, there is no denying climate change is here. Continued support for the use and investment in fossil fuels is signing a blank check for the destruction of our home. There are many better alternatives, but first we have to take a stand. Supporting divestment is about protecting our future.”

Divest UW is an entirely student-led initiative, and you can find more information, sources for statistics and information, and studies regarding the impact of divestment on an endowment financially on the group’s Facebook page or website.