The University of Washington (UW) will divest roughly $2 million of its endowment from coal companies, citing "the seriousness of the climate change problem," after a vote by the school's board of regents Thursday night.
"Our action today is the latest element of the University's long-term commitment to improving the environment through world-class research and state-of-the-art sustainability practices," board chair Bill Ayer said in a statement.
"The Regents take very seriously their responsibility for managing the University’s investment portfolio... It has made divestment decisions only a few times on matters it felt represented important values. That we decided to divest from coal companies today reflects the seriousness of the climate change problem," he added.
The decision comes after nearly three years of campaigning by student organizers with Divest UW—and makes it the largest public university to take that step.
"I'm proud of our school. The 'Yes' for coal divestment makes the UW a leader in the moral fight of our generation," said Carly Marshall, a NASA Space Grant scholar.
Alex Lenferna, a South African Fulbright Scholar at UW and a leader of the divestment campaign, said the move is "one important step forward towards climate justice."
"We are under no illusions that it will solve climate change by itself—nothing does," Lenferna said. "Rather, divestment is one of a thousand cuts in a much broader societal, moral, economic and financial transformation that can jointly rein in the fossil fuel industry and usher in a clean energy future."
The board's vote means that UW investment managers have until December 31 to eliminate the school's $2.3 million in direct coal holdings.
As the Seattle Times points out, the university will not be divesting from other fossil fuel companies, such as oil and gas. "Here in Seattle, this hits home with Shell’s plans to dock at our Port for the purpose of going to the ends of the Earth to drill for oil," writes UW student and Divest UW activist Morgan Sinclair in a blog post for EcoWatch.
But the focus on the coal industry is particularly important, as it is "the largest contributor to climate change and the most harmful of the fossil fuels," Divest UW organizers say. They point to a recent study published in Nature which found that "we will need to keep 80% of coal reserves unexploited in order to stand even a 50% chance of achieving the globally agreed upon target of keeping global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures."
As Sinclair continued in her post:
Climate change is already here, and we cannot turn a blind eye to rising seas, severe droughts, devastating storms and dire food insecurity. All of us, as individuals, institutions and governments, have a choice to make—between letting this crisis worsen catastrophically or taking action to right this wrong. By severing our ties to the coal industry—the worst climate offender out there—the University of Washington has taken a strong, positive stand for a better future.
KC Golden, senior policy adviser at Climate Solutions, one of the advocacy groups that supported the student-led campaign, stated on Thursday, "Fossil fuel industries keep us locked in to the climate crisis with a campaign of darkness—obscuring the truth about climate science and blocking the path to solutions. I can't think of a more important signal to the students about the University’s commitment to their future and its own purpose... than divesting from fossil fuels."