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Op-ed: Full U. divestiture is the right level of response to climate change

First Published      Last Updated May 14 2016 05:12 pm

Fossil-fuel emissions continue to grow at an accelerating pace, driving unprecedented climatic changes, changes felt here and now. In response, an array of stakeholders at the University of Utah are seeking out solutions, but with approaches that contrast significantly. In their broadest sense, these solutions range from those that work within current institutions to those that seek to address climate change at its root, as a systemic problem.

At this critical juncture in history, we must embrace the scientific reality that incremental, system-sanctioned change does not respond to the character or magnitude of climate change. It is time for the U. to take meaningful action and divest like it did in 1987 to help end apartheid. President David Pershing needs to follow through on his seven "Core Commitments," particularly the principle, "The New U. integrates the values of a sustainable and just society into all facets of the university, including academics, operations, and administrative practices."




This would include the Investment Management Office divesting the endowment of fossil fuel stocks that are morally unjust. Both sides agree that the initial cost to the endowment is small and could be net positive in the long run.

However, the minority vote opposing divestment at the University of Utah fears losing fossil fuel partnerships. This approach favors system-sanctioned change by working in partnerships with industry that Bill Johnson believes could lead to technology surges in "carbon efficiency, carbon capture, alternative energy sources, and centralization of combustion and efficient distribution of electricity, among many others." Similarly, his colleague, Dr. Cari Johnson, notes that the energy transition could happen "through partnerships with the industry, which, after all, has some of the most advanced technology available."

The majority vote supporting divestment highlights discrepancies in political-economic systems affecting policy decisions to block solutions to climate change (i.e. fossil fuel corporations value profits over morals). The divestment resolution states, "Continued investment in the fossil fuel industry is risky business and incongruent with climate science and incongruent with the university's education, sustainability and leadership values. Divestment is our moral, ethical and fiduciary responsibility. We have no right to invest in the destruction of the climate our students will inherit."

Divestment does not prohibit charitable donations from fossil fuel corporations, and Ryan Pleune is correct in asserting that "as a matter of reparations for climate change and for obfuscating climate science, if the industry is serious about supporting a transition to renewables, they should donate more research money."

To President Pershing and the Board of Trustees, I propose a set of partnerships and investment principles consistent with science and policy. In research published in the prestigious journal Nature, Christophe McGlade found that 82 percent of coal, 49 percent of gas and 33 percent of oil must stay in the ground in order to adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement, signed by over 177 countries, including the United States. A corporation interested in an energy transition that wants to partner with "The New U." or be eligible for investment money should commit to increasing funding towards renewable energy, and divesting the respective 33-82 percent of their fossil fuel interests to align with the global carbon budget.

This is the equivalent of the Sullivan Principles for Corporate Responsibility that the U. signed onto before fully divesting in 1987. It is time for the U. to again act as a leader, a role that can help leverage the political will for substantive legislation like a carbon fee and dividend or a moratorium on fossil fuel development on public lands.

Emily Nicolosi is a Ph.D. student in the department of Geography at the University of Utah.

 

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