Letter to the editor: It’s Time for SIU to Divest and Become a Leader in Fighting Climate Change
February 22, 2017
Filed under Opinion
Letter to the editor submitted by Students Embracing Nature, Sustainability and the Environment
When former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited campus in December he spoke about the need for governments, ordinary citizens and institutions like universities to help lead the way in tackling one of the greatest problems of our day: global climate change. He even left us with a challenge.
“Even in the universities, there are many areas where you can make sure you don’t make greenhouse gas emissions and you use sustainable energy,” he said. “Can you promise?”
In addition to the historic achievement of bringing a UN Secretary General to speak on campus, it was announced the same day that SIU would join the United Nations Academic Impact Program, which gives academic institutions the opportunity to work in association with the U.N. to develop projects that uphold the organization’s sustainable and humanitarian values.
The UN has for years been at the forefront of the international effort to combat climate change. During Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as Secretary General he made this one of his core objectives and helped lead the way to the historic passing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, which brought 194 nations together to agree upon taking action to combat climate change through the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, if SIU truly supports these values, we must ask ourselves: are we doing as much as we can as a university to contribute to the fight against climate change?
Certainly, this question is more important than ever.
With 2016 now recognized as the hottest year on record and 16 of the top 17 warmest years having occurred since 2000, there’s no room for doubt that our climate is changing, and at least 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it’s extremely likely due to human activity.
Incredibly, Donald Trump, our now supposed president, has consistently put into doubt this widely agreed upon concept, and plans to push us backwards in the fight by slashing emissions regulations and pressing for further development of fossil fuel use. He even stated an intention to withdraw the United Sates from the Paris Agreement, which would hugely undermine international efforts to tackle climate change.
We find ourselves now at an incredibly dangerous point in history. With a president who represents a legitimate threat to human rights, international relations and the environment, and with our climate quickly reaching a point of global catastrophe, SIU must stand up for the ideals that will protect its students and the world at large.
This will require more than simply stating support for values like diversity and sustainability. It’ll require proactive action that directly works to defend these and other values, as well as to progress us in the battle for change. This is why S.E.N.S.E. is calling on SIU to take up a leading role in the movement to solve the climate change crisis.
SIU, in fact, already has a strong history of pro-environment initiatives. The Green Fee — used to fund sustainable projects around campus every year — is one such example and has led to countless impressive actions since its establishment in 2009 after a student-led campaign.
We should also be commended for the many recognitions we’ve received for environmentally-friendly efforts such as our consistent inclusion in The Princeton Review’s “Green Schools” guide and last year’s designation of SIUC as a “Bicycle Friendly University” by the League of American Bicyclists. There is much credit that should be given to the students, faculty, and staff who have worked tirelessly to make our university as environmentally friendly as it is.
But, for all the many ways SIU excels in sustainability, it unfortunately still lag sorely behind in others. Take the Power Plant on the Carbondale campus — the towering eye-sore that many of us groan about under our breaths but is rarely brought into legitimate conversation.
It’s time to start that conversation.
While the plant is burning nearly 50,000 tons of coal per year to help provide heating, cooling, and electricity to the campus, it’s also contributing to climate change, polluting our air and serving as a symbol to all those who know or visit SIU that we’re stuck in the dirty past of fossil fuels.
Also brought into conversation should be the research into fossil fuel technology that takes place at SIU.
Many of these technologies, such as advanced coal (another name for so-called “clean coal”), are only furthering development of a dying industry that’s wrecking the planet while also putting off the renewable energy development we really need. In addition to all this, we’ve confirmed that SIU actively invests in fossil fuel companies through mutual and index funds that include fossil fuel stocks. It’s hard to say we support action on fighting climate change when we ourselves are both funding and profiting from the industry that’s most responsible for it.
That brings us to our first challenge for SIU. Roughly three years ago our organization kicked off a campaign, in solidarity with a growing number of similar ones at colleges and universities around the world, asking SIUC to halt all new and remove all current investments in fossil fuel companies and to reinvest that money in sustainable solutions.
In spring 2015 we passed a resolution through the Graduate and Professional Student Council which acknowledged their support for our campaign. Now, as of late November of last year, the Undergraduate Student Government has passed a similar resolution we created for them saying they support SIU cutting their investments in fossil fuel companies.
We believe this is a milestone that the administration cannot ignore. With the governing powers representing both the graduate and undergraduate student bodies now supporting us, we can now say that the students have spoken and our message is that we are concerned about the damage being done to our planet by the continual use of fossil fuels and we’d like to see SIU act in response to this.
Since our campaign was established, the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown substantially around the world.
A report published by Arabella Advisors in December of last year found that, to date, 688 institutions and over 50,000 individuals, representing a combined value of over five trillion dollars in investments, have committed to ending their investments in fossil fuels in some way.
In the year since the passing of the Paris Climate Agreement alone, this value represented by divesting institutions and individuals nearly doubled. Many of the institutions making divestment commitments have been colleges and universities, however the movement has now expanded to faith-based organizations, philanthropic foundations, governments and many other types of groups.
The fact is that people and institutions are now finding fossil fuel companies to be undesirable investments. There are three primary reasons for this, and these represent the primary reasons why we are calling on SIUC to take similar action.
First, investing in these companies is morally problematic.
The use of fossil fuels for energy and fuel is the number one cause of climate change. Their continued use is fueling such increasing catastrophes as rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice caps, rising seas, more severe storms and increasing droughts and flooding — all of which are incredibly destructive to both humans and other species.
In addition, fossil fuel use is the cause of many other environmental problems from oil spills to air pollution and land degradation. Of course we need them now to provide for many of society’s needs, but there are better alternatives already available that we need to be working toward and most fossil fuel companies seem to just be determined to soak as much profit as they can out of their remaining reserves instead of embracing the need for change. Because of this, holding stock in fossil companies is increasingly being seen as something that investors would rather not be involved with.
Second, investments in fossil fuel companies are increasingly being seen as financially risky and unsustainable.
As stated before, the fossil fuel industry is in terminal decline. Coal, oil, and natural gas companies have been slowly running out of easily extractable reserves and turning to sources that are dirtier and more difficult to obtain.
These companies are fated for a slow decline at best, while renewable energy is rapidly on the rise and is a much smarter long-term investment. Additionally, with the rollout of emissions regulations around the world as governments attempt to slow the progress of climate change, fossil fuel companies will be increasingly hindered and much of their reserves will be forced to remain in the ground.
This idea is known as the “carbon bubble,” and predicts that fossil fuel assets will become increasingly worthless as companies are met with increased pressure to slow production to meet emissions goals.
It’s been estimated that in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as is the goal for an upper limit hailed by scientists and agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves will have to remain unburned.
If we even come close to keeping this promise, then fossil fuel investments will dramatically lose their value in the not-too-distant future.
We understand that SIU is going through a period of deep financial difficulty at the moment and that a significant change in our investment strategies could be somewhat risky. However, we know that divesting from fossil fuels will be beneficial in the long term, at the very least.
In addition, a public statement like this would likely bring SIU positive attention, and with it increased interest from prospective students. And, most importantly, the time to act against climate change is now.
If we wait until SIU is doing well financially, which could take years, the opportunity to make a difference will have been missed.
The biggest argument for cutting fossil fuel investments is that divesting from a particular industry is a powerful statement.
If well publicized, SIU halting and removing their investments in fossil fuel companies and reinvesting in clean solutions would send a clear signal to all those in the region and beyond that we believe in a safe future for all living things and that the solution is clean, renewable energy not fossil fuels.
It’s hard to make an impact when one person or small group of people speaks up, but when an entire institution, and especially a well regarded public research university like SIU speaks up, it can amplify that message and have a real chance of shaping public opinion and policy.
Shifting funds away from fossil fuel companies and to renewable energy companies has an economic impact as well, encouraging development of the right companies that will help power a sustainable future.
With these reasons in mind, we renew our call, now supported by the governing powers of the entire student body, for SIU to change the way we invest so as to take a real stand against environmental injustice and for the future of our planet.
We ask SIU to:
- Immediately commit to an indefinite halt to all new investments in fossil fuel companies, including both direct investments and commingled assets that include fossil fuel companies.
- Divest any current holdings in fossil fuel companies or in commingled assets that include fossil fuel companies within an aggressive timeframe, preferably five years or less.
- Reinvest all divested funds into renewable energy companies, investments, or research into renewable energy production.
If none of these are reasonably possible (which we strongly feel they are), we at least ask SIU to commit to reassessing our investment strategies to reflect the urgent need for shifting support away from fossil fuel development to clean, renewable energy development. We plan to continue and grow our campaign until these demands are satisfactorily met.
But, as indicated earlier, divestment from fossil fuels is only a small piece of the changes and initiatives that we believe could truly place SIU as a leader in sustainability and the fight against climate change.
That’s why we’re encouraging SIU to go beyond divestment and actively work to uphold these ideals in all facets of the university’s operation.
This means beginning plans to retire the coal plant that is a defining feature of our campus. This means working to power our campus progressively more from renewable energy sources. This means bringing up for serious discussion the research we do into fossil fuel technologies like advanced coal, and encouraging more renewable energy research on campus. And this, along with many other possible steps, means publicly condemning blatant anti-environment rhetoric and policy from the national to the local level, while also showing support for government actions that protect our natural environment, including the climate.
Many of you reading this, if you’ve gotten this far, will have a different opinion on the role fossil fuels should have in our society, and may even feel defensive or insulted by our targeting of them in our aims to incite change.
We honestly have no intention of causing this type of reaction. We recognize the essential role they’ve played in powering our society for generations, as well as the important economic and cultural impact they’ve had in Southern Illinois. But we have to be willing to recognize when change is needed and when new systems and industries develop.
Fossil fuels are by definition “non-renewable” and will have to be abandoned one day anyway. We are simply choosing to make the change while the worst impacts on our environment are still avoidable. Some people may say that fossil fuels are the “life-blood” of our region and turning against them is a betrayal or an unwise economic decision.
We see it in exactly the opposite light — that our history and present state only underscore the need for us to make a change and allow us the opportunity to make an even bigger statement when we do.
When others see that the people of a region steeped in a history of coal and oil production, in a town named after the area’s coal reserves, and on a campus with a coal-fired power plant as one of its most recognizable monuments, are rising up, led by the younger generation, to embrace a future free of fossil-fuel-induced destruction, it will be a truly galvanizing site.
On a final note, we’d like to invite any students, faculty, staff, community members or anyone else to get involved with our campaign. Around the world, millions are standing up and demanding change to protect our planet from continued destruction, and together our community can join this revolution.
If you’d like to get involved or collaborate with us, contact us at [email protected] or visit us on Facebook at facebook.com/siucfossilfree.
We also recognize that the environment is far from the only thing being profoundly threatened today in America and the world. We encourage anyone with concerns about the future to get involved in the fight for change. Speak up, join a movement, start your own campaign about something you disagree with.
Don’t let your voice go unheard.
SIU S.E.N.S.E. (Students Embracing Nature, Sustainability, and the Environment)