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Opinion

UWRF students petition for divestment of fossil fuels

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March 21, 2013

I recently met with Danny Saunders, a junior majoring in biology, to talk about the campaign he is spearheading to bring an end to UW-River Falls’ investment in fossil fuels.

Saunders grew up in Hastings, Minn., spending much of his childhood outdoors, fostering an appreciation for the environment. Before coming to UWRF, Saunders served as a botanical field aid at Angeles National Forest in California and as a fisheries intern at Tongass National Forest in Alaska. His experiences gave him a sense of urgency as well as perspective in how communities can protect their resources by making cooperatively sustainable decisions.

With the support of the Fossil Free coalition, student-led campaigns to divest from fossil fuels are occurring at over 300 campuses across the U.S.

Saunders is working with peers, faculty, staff and administration to educate our community. He hopes we take responsibility in communicating our stance on whether or not we want our investments to match our increasing commitment to campus sustainability.
The petition reads as follows: “Chancellor Van Galen,
Because it is unconscionable to pay for our education with investments that will condemn the planet to climate disaster, we call on University of Wisconsin- River Falls to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.”

What would this mean to our campus? As of June 30, 2012, the UWRF Foundation reports an asset of $449,431 in oil and gas industry stocks (about 2.8 percent of the Foundation’s total assets and liabilities at fair value). Divestment could take many paths. One sound option is to re-invest this money into proven reliable renewable energy generation. Saunders suggests the money could also be allocated to student scholarships or green building renovations, creating direct investments in our community.

In Saunders’ research, he has found that oil and gas investments can be risky. With the aftermath of the BP oil spill still fresh in our minds, this is not a far leap of logic. But even more pressing than economics, Saunders emphasized that he is taking an ethical stand against profits that endanger the planet. The Fossil Free campaign is a project that was created by 350.org. “350” refers to the parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that many climate scientists recommend as the safe upper limit for human life. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the CO2 level for February 2013 was 396.80 ppm. Can divestment really make a dent in this alarming trend?

One of the most successful examples of divestment occurred in the mid-1980s on college campuses across the United States. South African Apartheid was the result of a long, complex history of colonialism, where violence and racial segregation against black South African people was common under a white-minority rule. In solidarity with the more publicized efforts of South Africans resisting Apartheid in the ‘70s and ‘80s, American college students demanded their schools stop investing in institutions operating in or trading with the South African government.

The protests were successful in considerably decreasing South Africa’s wealth, creating pressure for the country to address its institutionalized racism and violence. Nelson Mandela, the first South African president to be elected in a post-Apartheid, multi-racial election, credited UC Berkeley’s $3 billion divestment from South Africa as a major vehicle helping to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Student involvement is key. Our voice determines where we want to go as a University. The consequences of carbon emissions on our planet and in our lives are apparent, but this shouldn’t overwhelm us. Using a tool that has proven incredibly successful in the past for positive change, divestment can alter the decision-making of powerful energy companies. Every dollar is a vote: thus we must be deliberate about where our vote is going as investors in UW-River Falls.

For more information about the fossil fuel divestiture campaign, you can contact Saunders at daniel.saunders@my.uwrf.edu. Also look for 350.org posters around campus to sign the petition.

To feature your sustainability events (two weeks notice), ideas, successes stories, gripes, etc., email: molly.breitmun@my.uwrf.edu.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.