SU Student Groups Submit Request for Fossil Fuel Divestment

From the April 2014 PNL #833

by Diane Williamson, Ella Mendonsa, and Ben Kuebrich

Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy demonstrate the destructive force of a warming planet. Unprecedented US droughts in 2012 also help emphasize that the effects of climate change are not reserved to a distant future, but are here now, and will only get worse in our lifetimes, especially if responsible action is not taken now.

Acting with the urgency that global warming deserves, students and faculty at Syracuse University are pressuring the administration and board of trustees to stop investing its endowment funds in the fossil fuel industry. In doing so, they are joining the largest movement against climate change in US history with 496 colleges, universities, local governments, and religious institutions across the country participating in similar campaigns—the largest divestment movement since the successful campaign against South African apartheid.

Although 30 Republican senators deny the reality of climate change, one would be hard pressed to find deniers at Syracuse University. The University represents itself as a leader on the environment as an early signatory to the Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), which sets 2040 as a deadline for campus carbon neutrality. However, this commitment does not extend into the University’s endowment, which has approximately 50–100 million dollars invested in the fossil fuel industry.

The national movement threatens to leverage the 400 billion dollars in the endowments of US universities as a tool to weaken the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, depriving them of their social and political legitimacy, and to strengthen wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.

Bob Wilson, Associate Professor of Geography at SU, sees divestment as a force for galvanizing a national student movement against climate change: “When students learn about climate change, most are like deer in the headlights. They don't know what to do and feel powerless to act. Divestment shows that some students are willing to take matters into their own hands and demand that their elders take action. As a professor, it's inspiring to see these students' creativity, tenacity, and courage.”

Last year, campus organizing at SU resulted in a student government resolution in favor of fossil fuel divestment, which passed with a vote of 28-2. Currently, the biggest pushback is not coming from students or faculty but from university administration. The first week of March, students sent a formal letter to administration requesting divestment. While Divest SU has faith that the administration will treat the issue with the thoughtfulness it deserves, the university previously suggested that it is too complicated to fully divest from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, major institutions like San Francisco State University, large cities like Portland and Seattle, and charitable foundations with over $300 million in assets have managed to divest from the fossil fuel industry on a far shorter timeline. In addition, reports from major investment management firms like Aperio Group suggest that the theoretical return penalty for SU’s endowment would only be $34,000, which is about a week of SU basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s salary.

Waiting for a response from the university, students wonder whether the new Chancellor, Kent Syverud, will be an ally or a barrier in their pursuit of fossil fuel divestment.

Divest SU’s position remains clear. As Vandana Shiva has said, “It is not an investment if it is destroying the planet.”

 

Are you a student, SU alum, or local environmental activist? Get involved by contacting Ella Mendonsa at ctmendon@syr.edu

Diane Williamson, Ella Mendonsa, and Ben Kuebrich are members of Divest SU. Visit Divest SU & ESF on Facebook or follow @DIVESTSUESF on Twitter for event updates and to learn how to get involved.

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