SU Student Groups Request Fossil Fuel Divestment

From the May 2014 PNL #834

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 the 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 relatively 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.”

Students Stand Together Against Keystone XL Pipeline - by Tamara Rasamny

SPC intern and SU student Dave Oster (left) and a
fellow student rally outside the White House on
March 2 along with about 1,000 other students from
around the country calling on President Obama to
reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: unknown

On March 2, students from all over the US gathered in Washington, DC to express their disapproval of the Keystone XL Pipeline’s expansion. A group of Syracuse University students from Divest SU/ESF and Students of Sustainability were among those calling for action against the pipeline. Almost 400 people were arrested, with more than 1,000 taking part in the protest. “Decision-makers in DC could turn off their TV sets, but they could not press mute on the protesters shouting for justice outside their buildings,” said Alexander Vélez Burgos, a sophomore philosophy and international relations major.

The Keystone XL pipeline, the pipeline’s fourth phase, is an extension of an existing pipeline from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois, and Texas.  If approved, it will transport approximately 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Jasmin Durán, a junior international relations major, expressed her frustration with not only the environmental impact the pipeline can have, but its effect on the surrounding communities as well. “Instead of exacerbating our dependency on ‘dirty oil,’ there should be some efforts focusing on renewable sources of energy,” Durán said. “It’s time to stop exploiting our planet in the way that we have.”

And this is what Durán hoped to achieve marching her way up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The most important success this protest achieved was gathering the youth together against an environmental issue and becoming “proactive forces and agents of change” in this society, she added.

Burgos, who participated in the protest for similar reasons, pointed out the importance of carrying out one’s actions, instead of simply using words. “I wanted to be part of the society that went to the streets saying, ‘Stop! Rethink what you are doing,’ instead of the docile part of society that kicks back in [their] room posting [on] Facebook whatever ‘trends’ they can criticize to get a couple of ‘likes,”’ Burgos said.

Supporters of the pipeline said it could create tens of thousands of jobs.  However, the US Department of State’s report on the Keystone XL Project said it would actually create 1,950 jobs over a two-year period, with only 50 permanent jobs once the construction is over. “This pipeline won’t really impact the growth of the US economy in the way it is portrayed,” Burgos said. According to the report, the pipeline will add only 0.02 percent to the US’ gross domestic product. According to a report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, if built, the KXL will emit as much carbon in its lifetime as the annual emissions of one billion cars.

These consequences were obvious to Ella Mendonsa, a junior political science and policy studies major.  “The Keystone XL pipeline is one of the few fossil fuel projects being implemented on a national level that will cause new fresh damage and pollution on such a large scale,” she added. After numerous people joined together and protested for what they believed in, Mendonsa thinks “Obama has taken note . . .  at the very least this protest has galvanized our generation into working together to achieve political action on climate change.”

Diane, Ella and Ben 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.