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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Divest from fossil fuels, invest in clean energy

    President Barack Obama gave his first public speech when he was an undergraduate at Occidental College, advocating for an end to South African apartheid through divestment. He was part of a larger movement sweeping the nation’s campuses throughout the 1970s and ’80s, in which students demanded their universities sell assets in their endowment portfolio, otherwise known as divesting, in companies with economic relationships with South Africa.

    Three decades later, the president harkened back to his college days by calling on students at Georgetown University to “[convince] those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push [their] own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

    He was campaigning for Fossil Free, a network involved in the fossil fuel divestment movement, with Al Gore at the helm. Since its start on U.S. campuses in 2011, Fossil Free has accumulated over 800 pledges from institutions and individuals to divest billions of dollars in nonrenewable energy sources, including those from groups as large as the World Council of Churches. Last month, the Rockefeller Foundation, a massive philanthropic group created by the wealth of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, committed not only to divest the portion of its hefty assets invested in fossil fuels, but also to reinvest those funds in clean energy sources, a symbolic milestone in the fight against global warming.

    The divestment movement also arrived in Tucson this year. Pat Brewer, environmental studies major and student organizer involved in the UA movement, commented that 2 degrees Celsius is a low-end estimate for climate change.

    “That’s massive,” Brewer said. “A change like that will disrupt global systems, and I think our generation is starting to pick up on that.”

    The movement is now gaining traction at the UA. Over 50 students have joined the local divestment group, and involved students and faculty have already collected 1,200 signatures on a petition to get the University of Arizona Foundation to divest; they will meet with the foundation in the upcoming weeks to discuss divestment options, according to Brewer.

    Despite the catchy “divest” slogan, divesting is only half of the social battle — and a much smaller portion of the economic equation. The biggest barrier to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies remains cost, which must be lowered through extensive investment in research and development. The Rockefeller example shows the leverage of a two-pronged attack, which follows DIvestment with INvestment.

    Harnessing the power of consumers to drive social change is not new. It’s what drove the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the ’50s. Students are now tapping into that to hurt non-renewable energy producers. But now that the movement is gaining momentum, it should focus on INvestment. While divestments will likely be replaced by other profit seekers, INvestments catalyze change by putting money directly into companies that can make affordable clean energies a reality.

    The South Africa divest movement’s success in putting strong economic pressure on companies is still being debated, but most agree that its public calls for action in academia amplified social pressure for change, according to an article by the Harvard Political Review. The current divest movement is likewise laying the public foundations for a societal rethinking of energy responsibility.

    That said, in many cases, the movement is still in phase one and will eventually need to transition into phase two, emphasizing investment, if it wants to make renewable energies a reality.

    “We’re still in the first month of the program,” Brewer said, recognizing the significance of the first step. “At this point, it really is about spreading the word and getting people to understand what we’re doing. Just moving the money out isn’t going to cause any major changes — no matter if every university in the world did it, it would still not entirely dissuade oil producers. But I think investing in start-up businesses and green companies will make a much larger financial impact on the overall market.”

    Unlike apartheid, the root problem in climate change and unsustainable energy use is not just societal; it is also economic. Switching from fossil fuel reliance must address both aspects. The Rockefeller example and Obama’s call to align economic goals with a “sound environment” must become a central emphasis. Change cannot stop with divestment, although it is an important first step.

    Climate change is one of the most important global crises of the century, and how we choose to deal with it will define our generation. Let’s ensure that the definition is a flattering one.


    Julianna Renzi is a sophomore studying environmental science and economics. Follow her on Twitter.

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