In Midst of Paris Climate Talks, We Demand UMass Divest From Fossil Fuels

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In Midst of Paris Climate Talks, We Demand UMass Divest From Fossil Fuels

Student members of Divest UMass posing for a picture with author and activist Naomi Klein. The students are increasing the pressure on the university's president and board of trustees ahead of a vote next week. (Photo: Divest UMass/Facebook)

On December 9th, just two days shy of the close of the Paris climate talks, the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees will meet, and the UMass community will be watching.  Students, faculty, staff, and alumni expect that the Board will vote to divest their endowment from the fossil fuel industry, thus removing their support of global climate disaster, exploitation, and human suffering. For three years, the UMass Board of Trustees has ignored the calls of the student body and the community for full divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

Students have made clear that this inaction is unacceptable, and that in neglecting to take action, the UMass system remains on the side of injustice. The time for action is now. As people all over the world make a resounding call for bold commitments to climate justice from our world leaders in Paris, we look to the leaders of our university with the expectation that they too will not wait any longer to act for climate justice. The accord coming out of Paris marks the beginning of the end for the fossil fuel industry. The world's biggest polluters, from the U.S to China, are making clear commitments as governments to break their dependence on fossil fuels. UMass risks being left behind. As President Obama said in his speech in Paris, "The global economy is on a firm path to a low carbon future." Divestment is part of this pathway, as our university’s most potent tool to spur the global shift towards a just and sustainable future, and we have a responsibility to act.

In the past few years, the world has woken up to the fact that there is more carbon in the fossil fuel industry’s reserves than humans can safely burn without triggering abrupt and catastrophic climate change. We have already seen the impacts of irresponsible carbon extraction and emission, and we have seen that they are felt first, and most violently, in poor and marginalized communities. Professor James Engell of Harvard wrote: “The fossil-fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned. Second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.”  By maintaining its investments in fossil fuel companies, our university is willingly betting against the public interest and in favor of the destruction of human lives, now and in the future that the university’s students will inherit.

Fossil Fuel Divestment is an international movement, which has successfully pushed 400 separate institutions to divest their portfolios, representing $2.6 trillion in total, from oil, coal and gas companies. The campaign at UMASS Amherst began three years ago and was comprised of a just a few students, but has now garnered far-reaching support on multiple UMass campuses: comprised of students, of hundreds of faculty and staff, who have signed an open letter to the Board calling for divestment; of graduate students, who have passed two senate resolutions calling for divestment; and of alumni, hundreds of whom have signed a petition for a vote on divestment on December 9th. The power of student support for divestment is evident in the 3,000 signatures on a student petition for divestment, and it was evident last Spring, when more than 300 students signed a pledge to take nonviolent direct action if the board continued to delay.

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With this strong base of community support, the UMass Divestment Campaign has done absolutely everything in it’s power to demonstrate the urgent moral imperative of Divestment. We met with administrators, presented a clear five-year proposal for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, tailored to our existing endowment structure, and demonstrated the overwhelming call for divestment coming from the UMass community through petitions, rallies, and public actions. In spite of the numerous administrative hurdles we have had to face, the campaign has only grown in size and determination, augmented by a wave of first and second year students, inspired by the international movement, and determined to achieve divestment for UMass. We are confident that the work done by students and the community has fully paved the way for the board to act immediately.  Nothing stands in the way of a vote to divest on December 9th, unless our leaders’ priorities have been skewed by the powerful politics of fossil fuel interests.  

This opportunity for leadership is heightened with the backdrop of the international climate talks, which began in Paris on November 30th. Leadership on climate cannot be limited to heads of state and top U.N. officials. Leadership on the climate crisis must occur on every level, and college administrators do not fall outside the realm of responsibility.  We are hopeful that the new leadership of the UMass system, President Marty Meehan and Chairman of the Board, Victor Woolridge are ready to lead on divestment.  In his first speech as new Chairman, Victor Woolridge emphasized taking courageous action, driven by “the fierce urgency of now,” citing Martin Luther King Jr.  King stated in 1963, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” We know that President Meehan and Chairman Woolridge understand the importance of taking leadership in this moment, and acting with the moral courage that King demanded. On December 9th, the UMass community will watch our university leaders with expectation and hope that they will take this vital step to stand on the right side of history, the side of humanity, and in opposition to this outdated and destructive industry.

Now is a time for all of us to amplify the voices of people demanding climate justice in Paris, as well as those around the world who are unable to speak out, but need action more than anyone. We, the UMass students and community, have spoken up, and next week, we expect action from our administrators.  The Divest UMass campaign, represented by members from across the system, will be present as the UMass BOT meets at UMass Lowell on December 9th, with the expectation that the Board, led by Chairman Victor Woolridge, will leave apathy and complacency behind, and vote to divest from all fossil fuels.

Sarah Jacqz

Sarah Jacqz is a second-year student at UMass Amherst, studying an independently-designed major called “Spatial Justice,” and minoring in Black and Latino studies. She joined the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign when she first arrived at UMass, and student organizing has been a huge part of her life since. 

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