Op-Ed: Divestment, not denial, will fix Wash. U.’s climate change complacency problem

Eddie Ives | Fossil Free WashU

On Friday, Fossil Free WashU hosted a rally for fossil fuel divestment outside the Danforth University Center featuring various student and faculty speakers and a march to Brookings Quadrangle. Over 100 students turned out to demonstrate popular support for the campaign, and our petition for divestment has garnered more than 1,400 student and 105 faculty signatures. Our purpose is to demand university action on an issue that has gone unaddressed for far too long by major institutions: climate change.

Washington University holds an endowment of almost $8 billion that it invests to create additional income. When the companies in the endowment profit, so does Washington University. But what about when these companies make their money by perpetuating climate change, destroying the environment and endangering the lives and safety of marginalized communities without paying for any of it? We profit from that, too.

The front page of the Wash. U. website reads, “Together we are investing in the future, driven by…the desire to benefit our community, our nation and our world.” Our hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the fossil fuel industry render this statement a contradiction at best and an outright lie at worst. Nothing about the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels betters “the future,” “our community” or “our world,” no matter how the administration tries to spin it. To continue to profit off of climate change devalues the research and education done in the name of Washington University. Divestment, the goal of the Fossil Free WashU campaign, calls for the University to take all investments out of the top 200 fossil fuel companies in order to better align our stated values with our actions.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, we have 11 years to take action to prevent the catastrophic effects of 1.5-degree Celsius warming, the consequences for inaction grow steeper. Professor of environmental studies Scott Krummenacher spoke at the rally on Friday, decrying such persistent inaction as a form of climate denial in and of itself. Even disregarding the right-wing rhetoric proclaiming snow as proof that climate change is a hoax, the total lack of any courageous measure to fight the single greatest threat of our generation is, bluntly put, cowardice.

Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s justification for not divesting is the refusal to allow political agendas to shape investment policy. While this may sound neutral, to defend and protect the status quo in the face of an issue as great as climate change is as political as fighting it. After a protest by Fossil Free WashU last spring, Wrighton said he would ask the board of trustees to reconsider their policy on divestment and promised the creation of an advisory committee on endowment transparency. Nearly a year later, there has been zero indication that the board has reconsidered this policy, and no such committee exists. This underscores the greater issue of the board of trustees’ lack of transparency, who meet twice a semester to make decisions about our university behind closed doors.

With Chancellor-elect Andrew Martin preparing to take the reins of the University in June, we hope he will demonstrate a greater sense of urgency in confronting the challenges ahead of us. As Krummenacher pointed out last Friday at our rally, the culture of complacency surrounding climate change is demonstrative of the immense privilege we have at Washington University to simply pay lip service to solutions. Meanwhile, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires threaten hundreds of millions. Coal miners in nearby Illinois die of black lung disease while coal mining pollutes their waterways. Most of us at Wash. U. do not directly experience the effects of fossil fuel extraction, but we must act on behalf of those that do in order to be the climate leader that we claim we are.

As hard as we may try, this issue is not going away. Until Washington University truly recognizes the scale of the issue we are dealing with and joins the $8 trillion already divested worldwide, it will continue to put profits over people and the short term over our collective future. Climate change is not all-or-nothing; it gets worse every day we postpone action, sitting paralyzed by the overwhelming size and scope of the problem. Washington University must do its part to guarantee a better future for its students by divesting from fossil fuels. The marchers’ chant this past Friday frames the issue aptly: “The seas are rising / So are we / Wrighton, what’s your legacy?”

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