How to Divest Your University from Fossil Fuels

Divest UW students, including Alex Lenferna (rightmost), accompany divestment activists from Seattle University in a rally to support University divestment. (Photograph courtesy of Divest UW)
Divest UW students, including Alex Lenferna (right), accompany divestment activists from Seattle University in a rally. (Photograph courtesy of Divest UW)

Last week Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to commit to pulling all investments out of fossil fuels. They will phase out $29 million in investments over the next ten years.

Seattle was the first city in the US to commit to divestment from fossil , and a dozen universities around the country have now signed on to the Fossil Free campaign, created by the activist organization 350.org. But the University of Washington still invests $15 million in fossil fuel companies.

Alex Lenferna is a doctoral student studying the ethics of climate change, and a member of Divest UW, a student-run organization campaigning for the UW to divest from fossil fuels. He has been working with the UW treasury to change policy on their fossil fuel investments. “By investing in fossil fuels, not only are you arguably making a bad economic investment, you’re also betting against climate change action,” Lenferna said.

He explained that fossil fuels are becoming risky investments for a number of reasons. The fuels themselves are becoming more expensive on global markets, making them more unstable, and the value of fossil fuel companies is being falsely inflated. So for a school like Glasgow University or UW, with multiple millions invested in the fossil fuel industry, divesting could be a wise financial decision in the long run.

But the actual process of divesting from fossil fuels can be tricky: there are constraints on how much account holders can move their money around. And some argue that divesting is not the most effective way to have an impact.

“Divestment from fossil fuels would not financially impact the companies,” said Ann Sarna, an associate treasurer at the UW, “and there are other ways for the University to address climate change and contribute to the national dialogue to the issue.”

Last February, Divest UW and the Treasury co-sponsored six Global Climate Change Initiatives which will help UW’s investors avoid economically and ethically questionable fossil fuel investments. The initiatives include using UW’s voice as a shareholder in companies to effect change from within, known as shareholder advocacy.

The UW’s endowment is currently $2.5 billion. At the end of 2013, $15 million was invested in fossil fuel and $12 million was invested in renewable energy. The treasury has pledged to additionally invest up to $25 million in renewable energy.

According to Time magazine, the global divestment movement began years ago on college campuses, but it has gained momentum in the last month, with prominent investors like the Rockefeller Foundation announcing divestment from fossil fuels. The momentum has been fueled by protests and marches worldwide that drew millions of people, particularly in the week leading up to the 2014 UN Climate Summit.

Students and faculty at Glasgow University used the media presence to push the subject with their administration. Student involvement and partnership with vocal advocacy groups were key to bringing this issue before the University’s administration. They also gained the support of American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is a rector at Glasgow University.

While the Climate Change Initiatives are a step in the right direction, Divest UW members are hoping for more. “Things are moving really fast,” says Lenferna. “Arguably, there needs to be more urgent action…We’re planning on going in front of the board of regents next month to ask for divestment from coal.”

According to Lenferna, coal is one of the most financially unstable and least eco-friendly fossil fuels. Divest UW is hoping to work alongside Stanford University to compile a list of businesses and corporations with large coal assets, in order to divest from them. Lenferna hopes that list could expand to include other types of fossil fuels.

As of the beginning of 2014, UW had $15 million invested in the fossil fuel industry, something which Divest UW students hope to change. (Photograph by Clare McGrane)
As of the beginning of 2014, UW had $15 million invested in the fossil fuel industry, something which Divest UW students hope to change. (Photo by Clare McGrane)

Supporters say that public involvement is key to this movement: student and taxpayer opinions are important to public institutions like UW.

The UW treasury encourages student involvement in its decisions. “Successful student groups establish a framework to continue engagement with the administration,” said Sarna. She urges students to “keep an open mind and read research that supports a view that differs from their own. Recognize it takes both time and effort to make changes in a large institution or company.”

Lenferna believes that climate change action is a moral obligation to our future, as well as an important financial concern for institutions. “We want to make sure that our university is leading the way to addressing climate change,” he said. “It’s important that the university is able to make a statement saying that these are investments that we find to be financially risky, and that we find to be morally problematic.”

Get involved in the Divestment movement at UW:

Teach-In: Learn more about divestment and how to get involved

  • Tuesday October 21st, 5:30pm
  • Savery Hall, Room 139, University of Washington

Rally: Ask UW Board of Regents to divest from coal

  • Thursday November 13th
  • Students can also attend the meeting to see what happens and show the board their support for divestment.

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