At the epicenter of the nation’s water crisis, some University of Arizona students are calling on the UA Foundation to take a tough stance on climate change and withdraw the $82 million from fossil fuel investments by 2029.
“While we know the foundation was supported by money from fossil fuels, we want to show them that Arizona, Tucson, the U of A – its students and alumni – support renewable energy,” said Samantha Wetherell, president of UAZ Divest, the student-run group calling on the UA Foundation to divest. “We will push for sustainability and we want to see the University of Alberta put its money where its mouth is in terms of sustainable initiatives.”
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This strategy is not unique to the AU.
Over the past decade, student demands for universities to divest from fossil fuels have become a popular rallying cry for environmental activists on campus. And in many cases, it worked. In 2021 alone, about 20 higher education institutions – including Harvard, the University of Minnesota and the California State University System – announced divestment from fossil fuels after facing student pressure for the TO DO.
That momentum made its way to Tucson when a group of college students formed UAZ Divest at UA in 2019.
Since then, the group’s executives – some of whom have since graduated and moved on – have held numerous meetings with directors, advocating for fossil fuel divestment. But those campaigns can be lengthy, not least because the UA Foundation, which administers a billion-dollar endowment, is a separate entity with a separate board from the university.
In addition to demanding that the UA Foundation complete a phased divestment from fossil fuels by 2029, UAZ Divest also demands the following:
- The UA Foundation publicly commits to no longer invest in the fossil fuel industry from this point forward.
- The AU and the AU Foundation define and concretely implement policies for investments and partnerships in Environmental and Social Governance (ESG).
- The UA Foundation includes student representation, with voting rights, on the Board of Trustees and the Investments Committee.
UA President Robert Robbins met with members of UAZ Divest last February, and Wetherell said he was supportive and urged the group to meet with the UA Foundation. “However,” she added, “we haven’t received any written support from him, we’ve only had verbal support.”
When UADivest members finally had a formal meeting with the foundation in August, they didn’t get the feedback they were hoping for.
“Their answer was usually no,” Wetherell said. “They don’t seem to have any interest in ever doing a public divestment in fossil fuels or any other type of divestment.”
About 7% of the foundation’s investments are related to fossil fuels, and according to UA spokesperson Pam Scott, it has made no new such investments since 2019. Although this indicates a slow and recent exit fossil fuels, the foundation would still stand to lose a great deal if it divested its existing stakes in the industry.
“The Foundation does not hold direct equity interests in publicly traded oil and gas companies; rather, these fossil fuel investments are part of privately managed funds,” Scott said in an email to the Arizona Daily Star. “Private Energy was the best performer in the portfolio in fiscal 2022, up 44.1%.”
“The losses weigh heavily”
The UA Foundation’s reluctance to publicly support fossil fuel divestment hasn’t stopped Wetherell and other UAZ Divest members from continuing to collect signatures for their divestment petition and publicize their cause.
At a rally on the UA Mall in late September, more than 30 students and faculty came out to amplify the message of fossil fuel divestment.
“Disinvestment is not an end, but a beginning. Divestment is a doorway to a better future on this campus,” David Sbarra, a UA psychology professor who studies how people respond to change, said at the rally. “Why is it so hard to change? Because the losses are significant. And no loss is more important to this institution than the loss of money. We must create a positive future. We have to stop the fear and stop this way of thinking suggesting there is more.
Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied campus divestment movements, said accepting the need to reduce reliance on non-renewable energy is key to creating more sustainable energy policies in the long term.
“Much of climate policy has focused on new (resource) science and technology. But we actually have to resist and focus on phasing out fossil fuels. For a great transition, you need both,” Stephens said. “This is where the case for divestment from fossil fuels is strong and growing.”
Although the rise of electric cars and solar power is generating media buzz, the US Energy Information Administration has reported that in 2021, fossil fuels – these include oil, natural gas and coal – accounted for 79% of primary energy production. These energy sources are used in nearly every aspect of modern American life, including fertilizing crops, moving goods across the country, and heating buildings.
The vast majority of the scientific community agrees that reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable for the planet. But the stormy US political climate – which is regularly influenced by the powerful fossil fuel lobby – has yet to produce a unified front on phasing out fossil fuels.
This disconnect is perhaps most evident at public research universities like the AU, where scientists work on the latest environmental research in a state that has yet to develop a nationwide climate action plan. the state.
“Fossil fuel divestment in universities is a way to demonstrate resistance to fossil fuel addiction and recognize the science behind it,” Stephens said. “Each university (which undertakes to divest from fossil fuels) builds a part of this solidarity which resists. The underlying idea is to recognize the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry and take back some of that power for the public good.
AU drafts climate action plan
The student activism that drives UAZ Divest is what led to the establishment of the AU Office of Sustainability in 2011.
But aside from setting the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040, little change was made to the AU’s sustainable development policies until Robbins became president in 2017. The following year, the AU restructured and expanded the Office of Sustainable Development and tasked it with establishing the school’s first establishment. action plan for sustainable development and climate by 2023.
“We are in a better place than a few years ago,” said Trevor Ledbetter, director of the Office of Sustainability which works on both the AU’s climate action plan and that of the city of Tucson. “We still have a long way to go. But our administration’s support and our community’s advocacy are really helping us accelerate our sustainability and climate action in a way I’ve never seen at most institutions.
The university’s biggest achievement to date, Ledbetter said, was the agreement it reached in 2019 with Tucson Electric Power to source electricity from renewable resources, which was at the the largest such agreement in North America at the time.
At the same time, however, many universities the size of the AU – including Arizona State University – have already developed concrete climate action plans.
Calling on the UA Foundation to divest from fossil fuels will not be part of the plan Ledbetter and his team are writing.
“From a student’s perspective, I agree with that. Holding fossil fuel stocks goes directly against our goals of carbon neutrality,” Ledbetter said. But, he also acknowledges that the separation between the UA Foundation and the university puts the pressure for divestment outside the purview of his office. “We hope to have conversations with people at the foundation, but more to advocate for fundraising priorities.”
He added that if the foundation agreed to divest from fossil fuels in the future, it would send a powerful message about aligning AU finances with its values.
But divestment would still be just one step toward achieving a much larger end goal of creating an environmentally sustainable campus. “We have a very large operational footprint and greenhouse gas footprint, so we need to take action on our end and in our physical infrastructure to move it to a low or zero carbon footprint as quickly as possible,” said he declared.
For Eloise Standifer, secretary of UAZ Divest and a junior student in political economy, pushing for any change is better than doing nothing to preserve the natural resources she hopes to live on for many decades.
“It won’t save the world,” she said, “but it’s a good first step.”
Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her by email at email@example.com or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.