Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is, UC, and Fully Divest from Fossil Fuels

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Greenpeace/ Cris Toala Olivares. Link to photo license.

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The University of California says it takes the climate crisis seriously. The administration is remarkably self-congratulatory of its “pioneering work, “distinguished leadership, and even the “direct action it says it’s taking to stem the threat of global catastrophe while encouraging other institutions to “act with more urgency.

In promoting new investments totaling $150 million in climate-focused venture capital funds, the Board of Regents applauds itself as a “champion of sustainable investing.”

In publicizing its goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and vehicles and all-renewable electricity by 2025, the UC system has misleadingly dubbed the program the “Carbon Neutrality Initiative” and preemptively declared itself the “first major university to accomplish this achievement.”

Announcing the system’s membership in the University Climate Change Coalition, which commits its members to “mobilize their resources and expertise to accelerate local and regional climate action,” UC President Janet Napolitano flatly stated that, “no one is better positioned than we are to scale up research-based climate solutions,” and that, “addressing climate change is an area where some of the world’s greatest research institutions can, and must, lead.”

It all sounds great—until the topic changes to the UC system’s $100 billion investment portfolio, including $37 billion in public equities of which three percent, or $1.1 billion, is invested in fossil fuel companies. Here the leadership is somewhat less distinguished, to say the least. Board of Regents Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Bachher puts it bluntly: “We do not divest in our office.”

$1.1 billion is a lot of money. That’s more than the gross domestic products of over two dozen world nations—including several low-lying island states for whom sea level rise and storm intensity pose existential threats, like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. Every day, that $1.1 billion is in circulation, financing the exploration, extraction, transport, sale, and burning of fossil fuels. Every day, those funds emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming and destabilizing the planet. Every day, they render each and every UC employee and student complicit in the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Talk about “direct action.”

Investing over a billion dollars in fossil fuels misses “distinguished leadership” by a mile. If the University of California wants to live up to its own hype, it’s time to put its money where its mouth is. It’s time for the UC system to divest fully from fossil fuels.

That’s what the grassroots cross-campus coalition, Fossil Free UC, has been demanding since 2012. The ask is simple: Stop, Drop, and Roll. Stop all new investments in fossil fuels. Drop all remaining investments over a five-year period. Roll out a reinvestment strategy that actively drives a just transition into a carbon-free future.

The Board of Regents wants us to think this is complicated. And, to be fair, they do seem a little confused.

They call themselves leaders but say their investment decisions will “follow suit,” behind “market trends and opportunities.”

They commit themselves to a “reduction . . . of global fossil fuel use” while financing the very corporations expanding global fossil fuel production.

They dismiss the reality of planetary limits as an “arbitrary deadline” and disregard the ecological destruction they fund as “symbolic gestures.”

They cite “financial health” while omitting reference to the ecological health that is the foundation of the global economy. They invoke “fiduciary responsibility” but make no mention of moral responsibility. They say they want to protect “financial stakeholders” while contributing to mass human displacement. They have the gall to invoke “harmonious balance” while propping up an industry responsible for mountaintop removal mining, deepwater drilling, tar sand pit and pipeline construction, water waste, habitat destruction, industrial pollution, species loss, and more.

The Board of Regents makes empty promises to “look critically,” “position our portfolio,” and “consider a policy statement on climate change.” They know what’s at stake but refuse to act: “We are deeply concerned about the future of this generation”—wait for it—“but we do not anticipate the Board of Regents will vote immediately for full divestment now.”

At the twisted center of these logical pretzels is utter moral bankruptcy.

That’s how we end up with sentences like this: “While our students, faculty and staff tend to think about sustainability purely from a values perspective, we approach it both from a risk-management perspective and from an opportunity perspective.” As in, values-less.

Amoral institutional thinking that disregards the voices of a diverse majority in favor of narrowly-conceived financial objectives just won’t work as humanity begins to confront its planetary limitations this century and this decade. To achieve the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented economic and social transformation the United Nations says is required to build a just, sustainable future, our institutions need bold and moral clarity today.

Just to be clear: The UC system doesn’t even have to choose between money and morality. Recent empirical studies from the London School of Economics have strongly indicated that there are no long-term effects associated with divesting from particular asset classes like fossil fuels, and any short-term effects are in fact positive—avoiding bubbles and stranded assets. Is the UC Board of Regents even aware of this research?

As then-Lieutenant Governor and UC Regent Cruz Bustamante told his fellow Regents in 2001 during the successful campaign to block hypocritical investments in tobacco companies at that time: “Just sit and think about it for just a moment.

The UC system talks like it’s leading the charge against climate change, but time has run out for cheap talk. From the protracted anti-apartheid struggle at Berkeley in the 1980s to the recent Native American Students Association-led campaign against financing the Dakota Access Pipeline here at UC San Diego, organized student movements have always driven moral divestment at the University of California. It’s incumbent upon us to continue this tradition. And if the Board of Regents won’t act like the leaders they say they are, then they should get out of our way.

Peter Sloan is a contributing writer for The Triton. This piece is the second part of a series titled Fire Season, which publishes every few weeks.

The positions stated here do not necessarily represent the opinions of The Triton, any of its members, or any of its affiliates. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.