A Fossil Fuel-Free Future: The Push for Divestment

Students at the University have been organizing around fossil fuel divestment since at least 2013, but the University has yet to formally address the topic

Words by Alannah Bell. Photos by Margaret Wadsworth. Graphics by Alyce Yang.

Most everyone knows of the effects of climate change — of the flooding coastlines, intensifying storms and melting glaciers. These consequences will likely lead to what many climate scientists say will be the point of no return by 2030. In response to warnings from scientists, activists nationwide are calling for various forms of climate action, and among those mobilizing in response are student-led organizations on university campuses pushing for fossil fuel divestment in the education sector.

Divestment, “when you start really digging deeper into the literature [of it]… is an incredibly complicated thing,” said Phoebe Crisman, professor of architecture, director of the Global Environments and Sustainability Program and chair of U.Va. Committee on Sustainability. 

Fossil fuel divestment, specifically, involves removing assets specifically invested in fossil fuel companies whose practices further perpetuate the climate crisis. In the context of universities, student-led movements pushing for fossil fuel divestment are calling for institutions to be held accountable for the impact of their endowments’ investments.

In 2012, Unity College, a small institution in Maine, became the first American university to divest from fossil fuel companies, and movements led by students at other universities also began to gain momentum around this time. Organized efforts for fossil fuel divestment began at the University in 2013 with 350 U.Va., a chapter supporting a national Fossil Free campaign.

Before 2013, there had already been numerous campaigns for University divestment from various causes. Students have previously pushed for University divestment from apartheid in South Africa, the Sudanese government during the war in Darfur and the Burmese military junta in the early 2000s.

In December 2015, the Climate Action Society, another environmental student organization on Grounds and precursor to the University’s chapter of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, started the Divest U.Va. campaign. Tom Jackson, one of the members of the 2015 campaign, published an opinion editorial with The Cavalier Daily about their activities and motivations.

“Divestment signals to the world that the actions of companies that extract and combust fossil fuels do not reflect the values of our University, such as honorable conduct, data-driven science and the creation of a better future,” Jackson wrote. “A school’s decision to divest places the idea that fossil fuels are unethical at the forefront of public consciousness. It erodes the public faith in the institution of fossil fuels and their place in the future of this University and in the future of the planet.”

In September 2016, Divest U.Va. activists rallied outside of the Board of Visitors meeting to pressure the BOV to divest. However, the campaign struggled to get a public hearing on the topic and eventually fizzled out.

That 2016 rally happened during Joyce Cheng’s first year at the University. Now, as a fourth-year College student, Cheng serves as the logistics facilitator of the University’s chapter of VSEC. “I’ve been watching [the movement] change, and I think it’s going in a positive direction … but I think we can always move faster,” she said.According to a previous statement from Cheng, VSEC’s pursuit of a divestment campaign ended in 2017, and, since then, VSEC has shifted to a focus on community-based anti-pipeline advocacy. “However, we do [still] believe that UVA should divest from exploitative, extractive and destructive fossil fuel companies,” she wrote.

Students and community members gathered at the Rotunda for a climate strike in September 2019. // Riley Walsh

In September 2019, VSEC organized a climate strike at the Rotunda, where Cheng read aloud a list of demands, including fossil fuel divestment within five years, for the United States to take up more efforts for climate action and for the University to integrate a plan to be fossil fuel-free and completely carbon neutral. More than a hundred students were present at the rally to show their support for these demands and other forms of climate action.

Three months later, in December 2019, the Board of Visitors approved a resolution by which the University, together with William and Mary, committed to being carbon neutral by 2030 and fossil fuel free by 2050, among other climate-proactive goals. 

Following the resolution’s approval, anonymous messages written in chalk saying “DIVEST UVA” and “PEOPLE + PLANET OVER PROFIT” were found sprinkled around Grounds. Although the sustainability plan is written to achieve various environmentally conscious goals, it does not address investments in fossil fuel companies from the University’s $9.6 billion endowment

“U.Va. has committed to be completely carbon-free by 2050 which is a tremendous goal, but it’s only really one side of the equation,” said Jack Mills, first-year College student and member of Student Council’s Sustainability Committee. “The University has a sizable endowment of billions of dollars — while they can modify their actions as to how they’re impacting and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions within the atmosphere, another part of that impact stems from the money that they invest.”

He continued to deem divestment as being “the next step into showing that they are being proactive and not just ambivalent.”

In May 2020, The Cavalier Daily published an open letter to the Board of Visitors written by a group of anonymous students under the name of Divest U.Va. urging the University to publicly disclose its current fossil fuel investments and to completely divest these investments from the fossil fuel industry by 2030. The letter goes on to say the University must fulfill these particular demands in order to honor the futures of its students, to satisfy its commitment to be “both great and good” and to reinvest its divested funds into environmentally sustainable projects.

The reinvestment of assets into environmentally sustainable projects has been the recent focus of some climate activists who have attempted to reframe fossil fuel divestment as a push for “sustainable investment” — the investment of funds into more environmentally sustainable practices, such as renewable energy infrastructure and public transportation.Over the years, the University has funded and signed off on more and more sustainable investments around Grounds, such as the bike-share program, UBike — slated to be discontinued in May, as its usage had been declining in response to competition from new e-scooter services — that encouraged more sustainable transportation, water bottle refilling stations that reduce landfill waste and the construction of solar panels that provide renewable energy.

The University’s bike-share program, although slated to be discontinued in May, is one of the sustainable investments the University has funded around Grounds. 

However, supporters of the divestment movement argue that, in addition to the University’s responsibility of sustainable investment, the University is also accountable to the social sector and the entirety of the green movement. Willis Jenkins, professor of religion studies, believes the logic and credibility of divestment are based upon an idea he calls “delegitimization” — which he also references in his 2016 report entitled, “Should the University of Virginia Divest from Fossil Fuels? On the Ethics of Divestment”.

“When [the University of Virginia Investment Management Company] holds stock in a company, there’s an implicit, minimal faith that it’s a legitimate enterprise,” Jenkins said. “When divestment comes into play, it’s a statement that this is no longer a legitimate enterprise …. Fossil fuel companies that are not engaged in good faith efforts to respond to the impacts of their products … look less like legitimate enterprises and more like criminal syndicates.”

Jenkins deems delegitimization as one of the most fundamental reasons for any divestment movement. According to him, and in regards to the fossil fuel divestment movement in particular, delegitimization means to remove the University’s legitimizing financial backing of any company connected to fossil fuel consumption — to any company that consciously contributes to climate change and its disastrous effects.

Furthermore, Jenkins thinks that the question of to what extent the University should divest is a thorny one — that it’s a discussion “that the University community would have to have.” Once that question is answered, he believes that a set of principles by which a company currently funding fossil fuel activity can reinstate their eligibility for University funding after institutional divestment is important. This ability to re-legitimize themselves, according to Jenkins, should allow the company to restore itself from the blow of investors divesting so long as their practices meet updated moral conditions.

In Jenkins’ 2016 report, he further elaborates on arguments for and against divestment and ultimately concludes in favor of it. Since his report was published, his support for fossil fuel divestment has only grown stronger because of “the body of evidence that fossil fuel companies have not been good faith participants in efforts to respond to climate change” and the fact that the “climate crisis [is] clearly accelerating.”

Scientists say the climate crisis is clearly accelerating, but institutions continue to debate the financial advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuel divestment.

However, supporters of the divestment movement argue that, in addition to the University’s responsibility of sustainable investment, the University is also accountable to the social sector and the entirety of the green movement. Willis Jenkins, professor of religion studies, believes the logic and credibility of divestment are based upon an idea he calls “delegitimization” — which he also references in his 2016 report entitled, “Should the University of Virginia Divest from Fossil Fuels? On the Ethics of Divestment”.

“When [the University of Virginia Investment Management Company] holds stock in a company, there’s an implicit, minimal faith that it’s a legitimate enterprise,” Jenkins said. “When divestment comes into play, it’s a statement that this is no longer a legitimate enterprise …. Fossil fuel companies that are not engaged in good faith efforts to respond to the impacts of their products … look less like legitimate enterprises and more like criminal syndicates.”

Jenkins deems delegitimization as one of the most fundamental reasons for any divestment movement. According to him, and in regards to the fossil fuel divestment movement in particular, delegitimization means to remove the University’s legitimizing financial backing of any company connected to fossil fuel consumption — to any company that consciously contributes to climate change and its disastrous effects.

Furthermore, Jenkins thinks that the question of to what extent the University should divest is a thorny one — that it’s a discussion “that the University community would have to have.” Once that question is answered, he believes that a set of principles by which a company currently funding fossil fuel activity can reinstate their eligibility for University funding after institutional divestment is important. This ability to re-legitimize themselves, according to Jenkins, should allow the company to restore itself from the blow of investors divesting so long as their practices meet updated moral conditions.

In Jenkins’ 2016 report, he further elaborates on arguments for and against divestment and ultimately concludes in favor of it. Since his report was published, his support for fossil fuel divestment has only grown stronger because of “the body of evidence that fossil fuel companies have not been good faith participants in efforts to respond to climate change” and the fact that the “climate crisis [is] clearly accelerating.”

Phoebe Crisman — professor of architecture, director of the Global Environments and Sustainability Program and chair of U.Va. Committee on Sustainability — has been a dedicated supporter of student-led sustainable investment movements. Crisman has been working with students such as Abby Heher, a fourth-year College student and another member of Student Council’s Sustainability Committee, to uncover further information regarding UVIMCO’s investments in fossil fuel companies.

“One of the biggest challenges is transparency — actually knowing what it is that you’re investing in,” Crisman said. “I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but I think that it certainly is one of the biggest roadblocks to really meaningful divestment in that way.”

The specific investments of UVIMCO’s portfolio are not available to the public, and this secrecy is a common practice among other investment management companies as well.

However, Kristina Alimard, chief operating officer of UVIMCO, did reveal the potential extent to which the University’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies.

“Natural resources investments represented 5.4% of UVIMCO’s Long Term Pool as of June 30, 2019, and that allocation may be used as a decent estimate of the percentage of U.Va.’s endowment that is invested in companies associated in one way or another with natural resources including fossil fuels,” she wrote in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.

This information, Alimard added, can be found in UVIMCO’s 2019 Annual Report.

In 2019, U.Va.’s endowment was reported to be worth $9.6 billion. Based on statements from Alimard, it is a fair assumption that approximately $5.2 million of U.Va.’s endowment is invested in natural resources including fossil fuels.

While University divestment is considered by some of its supporters to be morally necessary, others acknowledge that the removal of the University’s assets from investments in fossil fuel companies would be financially disadvantageous.

According to Crisman, complete divestment from fossil fuel companies is considered difficult by many for predominantly economic reasons. Additionally, Crisman says it’s important to acknowledge the degree to which such removals of some assets might change the norms of academia, comfort and opportunity.

“From an ethical standpoint, investing in sustainable practices is the right thing to do,” she said. “At the same time, though, I understand that the role of UVIMCO, who invests our money, is to maximize return, and that return allows us to support student fellowships and scholarships and all kinds of other activities that we really think are important.”

Investments as managed by UVIMCO for the University contribute to a pile of funds that are distributed according to University needs as determined by the Board of Visitors — which currently includes Robert M. Blue, executive vice president and co-chief operating officer of Dominion Energy and president of Dominion Energy Virginia.

Jamie Wertz, a fourth-year College student, has been working on a project with the Darden School of Business and the McIntire School of Commerce to address the argument that divestment is a financially advantageous move.

“Key investment management firms are phasing out funding for projects that pose significant financial and environmental risk,” Wertz continued. “Right now, fossil fuels pose financial risk to portfolios, as well as environmental risk …. It makes pure economic sense to divest.”According to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in February 2019, non-fossil fuel companies have been found to outperform fossil fuel companies in terms of funds, and financial experts have denoted increased risk factors pertaining to fossil fuel investments. The financial sector has already begun to participate in a sort of climate action themselves, as the IEEFA has begun to urge investors to move away from fossil fuel investments that could lessen the value of their portfolios.

Since Unity College’s decision to divest from fossil fuels in 2012, numerous other universities have followed suit. In May 2016, the University of Massachusetts became the first major public university to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels. Most recently, Georgetown University committed in February 2020 to fossil fuel divestment.

In April 2016, the University of Mary Washington, the University’s former sister school located in Fredericksburg, divested following pressure from the Divest UMW campaign.

“The Board of Visitors takes seriously its fiduciary responsibility to protect the foundation’s investment of UMW’s endowment,” said Holly Cuellar, rector of University of Mary Washington’s Board of Visitors. “At the same time, it is important that this university continue to be a leader on the sustainability front and that we remain vigilant in seeking additional ways to demonstrate our commitment to the environment.”

Divest UMW brought together students from colleges all across the state, including from the University, to participate in a sit-in that lasted three weeks in April 2015. Divest UMW garnered support from over one-fourth of their university’s student body and over one-third of their faculty, subsequently gaining the opportunity to give a detailed presentation on divestment to their Board of Visitors. However, Cuellar initially rejected the proposal.

One year later, the University of Mary Washington became the first university in Virginia and the first public university in the South to commit to fossil fuel divestment for its, at-the time, $41.4 million endowment. Although UMW has a much smaller endowment compared to that of the University, other institutions with more comparable endowments have also committed to divestment — in September 2019, the University of California system, an institution with a $13.4 billion endowment, divested from fossil fuels.

Now, in 2020, the University has yet to formally address divestment, and concerted divestment campaigns have lain dormant since 2017. 

Heher believes that the fights for fossil fuel divestment and other social movements have taken longer than they should at the University due to insufficient intergenerational conversation between student activists.

“A challenge to everything that students attempt at U.Va. is that a lot of movements and efforts sort of expire after four years when whoever was most passionate about them and the key leaders graduate — which is one of the fundamental challenges of student self-governance,” she said.

Jenkins believes that the key to building the divestment movement’s credibility lies in students developing a critical understanding of fossil fuel divestment’s advantages and disadvantages and of all its surrounding circumstances and consequences. He says that, if student activists do not go through these necessary steps of education, then their efforts risk appearing as “empty symbolic posturing.”

“My advice to student divestment efforts … has always been to show the University leadership and UVIMCO that you’ve wrestled with the tough questions around divestment — about the reasons why and the logic for how,” Jenkins said.

While knowledge is critical to the success of fossil fuel divestment efforts, or any social activism efforts, Crisman emphasized that gathering knowledge isn’t the only important thing – it is also important for there to be steady lines of communication between the students and University leadership.

“I think that the main issue is communication. For sure, research and knowledge are the most important things, but also getting all those different groups together to really talk about it in a meaningful way,” she said.

Jenkins also stressed the need for collaboration among groups working on sustainability goals. 

“There’s a real role for organized student action to show serious engagement with the reasons why to divest,” he said, referencing a way in which climate action efforts could potentially be more successful on Grounds. “We have so many green groups, and leaders from across them could do some coalition building around this issue … And then also just prepare for intergenerational conversation.”

While student activists’ efforts have been critical to building and propelling the fossil fuel divestment movement, students stress that the ultimate responsibility and power to divest lies with the University.

“Universities have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the divestment movement,” Heher said. “They’re not just an institution with a large endowment — they’re an institution with a large endowment that has a responsibility to their students and their alumni to answer their needs, their values and to uphold the values that universities are founded upon.”

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