Universities wanting the brightest future for their students should stop investing in fossil-fuel companies, according to a nationwide climate-change action campaign that visited Utah Monday.
"We will have a huge impact if the university gets involved," said Shannon Kennelly, an environment and sustainability student at the University of Utah who helped organize the "Do the Math" tour’s visit to Salt Lake City.
A sold-out program Monday night at the Salt Lake City Main Library included comments by author Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate-action group, 350.org. An outspoken supporter of climate activist Tim DeChristopher, he began writing about the perils of climate change more than two decades ago.
As part of his latest effort, the Do the Math tour is aimed at connecting the dots between extreme weather, climate change and the fossil-fuel industry, whose emissions are blamed for speeding up climate change to worrisome levels. The effort aims to rally public support for getting colleges and universities to divest around $400 billion in fossil-fuel companies.
Some 750 seats for the tour sold out in Salt Lake City weeks earlier — just as it did in the 20 other cities where it’s stopped in the past month.
"We’ve felt serious momentum along this transcontinental roadshow, but the numbers of full-on divestment campaigns got larger faster than we could have dreamed," said McKibben in a news release. "A year notable for ice-melt, parched crops, and superstorms is going out with a different kind of bang: an explosion in activism, aimed squarely at the rogue fossil fuel industry."
So far, the campaign has triggered a meeting with university trustees at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a lively petition drive at the University of New Hampshire and a rally in Los Angeles featuring a banner that said "Hurricane Sandy Says: Divest the West."
In Utah, the divestment push is just beginning to heat up, with signature petitions and other efforts to put a focus on fossil fuel holdings.
The U. of U. is trying to be proactive on the issue, said Myron Wilson, director of the sustainability office. The university has a strong energy-efficiency program, a revolving loan fund for sustainability projects and commitments to use more alternative energy. He also pointed out that, while his office does not endorse the Do the Math campaign, it is a cosponsor of the Salt Lake City visit.
"We are listening," he said. "We are attentive."
Meanwhile, U spokesman Keith Sterling said the university has no plans to divest fossil-fuel holdings from its $562 million endowment pool.
"The U. is committed to sustainability," he said, "and we work diligently to ensure that goal while also being fiscally responsible for our university’s well-being."
Ryan Pleune, a former Utah teacher and climate activist, doesn’t expect the change to come fast. He does see some progress on a local level.
He pointed out that Utah colleges and universities have signed onto a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. Looking at that and other small efforts to move the issue beyond the inaction in Washington and internationally, he remains hopeful that the Do the Math tour will move the issue forward.
Pleune said: "We are putting these small steps together."
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