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Students call on trustees to divest fossil fuels

Campaign asks University to pull endowment money out of oil, energy stock

Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 23:10

Bill McKibben

The Vermont Cynic NATALIE WILLIAMS

Author and activist Bill McKibben speaks to students and attendees about Climate Change in the Ira Allen Chapel Oct. 13.


 

In the war on climate change, some activists are targeting the way UVM invests.

The Student Climate Culture (SCC), a UVM club, has launched a campaign to pressure the University to remove its funds from all fossil fuel companies.

“I think this could mobilize a cultural change and set UVM in a solid position to confront one of the most powerful and dangerous industries in the world,” SCC leader James Billman said. 

But some people worry that greening the University’s endowment — student tuition dollars invested in stocks to make money — could end up shrinking it.

The process of removing University investments in fossil fuel companies, known as divestment, would call for a considerable restructuring of the $360 million endowment that the Board of Trustees controls.

To show the Board of Trustees that they are serious, he said SCC has teamed up with other local and national environmental organizations like Greenpeace and 350.org to get the word out on climate change. 

SCC focused its campaign on removing investments from Blackrock All-Cap Energy Fund, which invests almost exclusively in energy and resource companies, club member Daniel Cmejla said.

This is because student tuition dollars – and 11.8 percent of the University’s endowment, according to 2011 figures – are invested in petroleum and energy corporations such as Exxon Mobil.

Cmejla said he and other SCC members believe that investing student tuition dollars in corporations that use fossil fuels is a direct violation of UVM’s core values.

“Climate change is a human rights issue as well as an environmental issue,” he said. 

To understand why colleges should change the way they invest, Cmejla said that author Bill McKibben explained it best in his July article for Rolling Stone magazine titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

McKibben wrote that during the 1980s, 155 universities, including UVM, withdrew money invested in companies that did business in South Africa to show that they did not support Apartheid, racial segregation enforced by the South African government.

McKibbon stated that the incentive for universities to divest this time around should matter even more to students because climate change isn’t just happening in one part of the world — it is everywhere. 

“If their college’s endowment has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet to make use of their degree,” McKibben wrote. 

The SCC will be making their case before the Socially Responsible Investment Work Group (SRIWG) at the public commentary portion of the next Board of Trustees meeting in November. 

The SCC has already had some support from trustee members, including UVM alumna and Vermont Rep. Kesha Ram.

“It would be great to see the ‘Environmental University’ fund alternative energy projects to help propel us into a sustainable 21st century,” Ram stated in an email.

But some students question how divestment will affect the University’s finances.

“I’m not against divestment, but I do think we need to consider the impact on the endowment,” said junior Derek Neal. “Could something like this end up raising tuition?”

As of last May, an advisory council representing students, faculty, staff and the administration was formed to work with the Board of Trustees and SWIRG, trustee Samuel Bain said. 

“This process is transparent and will incorporate plenty of opportunities for public commentary,” he said. 

UVM’s most recent investment conflict was in 2011 when student organizations proposed that the University dissociate from corporations profiting on Israel’s military occupation in Palestine, the Cynic reported. 

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