Environmental activists call for fossil fuel divestments


While some appreciated Earth Day on Monday as another day of the week, several students focused on the environment took an activist approach to the day by meeting to discuss a “greener” plan for the university — a plan that would include divesting all funds from fossil fuel companies by 2020.

Members of the Student Environmental Association (SEA) met Monday afternoon in the Provost’s Conference Room of the Patel Center for Global Sustainability to start dialogue for greater sustainability at the university.

University administrators were invited to the meeting, which took place on the same floor as many of their offices, but none attended.

Director of Politics and Activism for SEA Shaza Hussein, a senior majoring in chemistry and environmental studies, said she emailed invitations to members of the USF administration last Wednesday, including to USF President Judy Genshaft and members of the Provost’s and Financing offices and received two acceptances from Chief Operating Officer John Long and Finance and Accounting Manager Dawn Rodriguez, and one tentative acceptance from Student Body President and Board of Trustees member Brian Goff.

“It’s clear our administration doesn’t care about student voices and they have done it time and time again,” Hussein said. “They are ready to dismiss us, and I think the rest of the student body can see that as well.”

Hussein, along with several other members of SEA and environmental studies majors, met to discuss strategies to “address the University’s investments in dirty and dangerous fossil fuel companies and their increasing lack of concern for student voices.”

Hussein said the meeting would hold the university accountable to their commitments on climate and call for all university endowments to be divested from fossil fuel and dirty energy companies, which she said are common for universities to invest in.

“Our responsibility as students is to speak for the student voices, and to make sure they know we want clean energy,” Hussein said. “… We have the power, and they gave it to us today and I really believe they did by not being here, and being intimidated by the student presence and being worried that we may push something their way that they aren’t ready for. We have our voice, and we have the students on our side.”

Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman said in an email to The Oracle, the invited administrators “appreciate being invited and the student interest in this subject, unfortunately scheduling conflicts did not make it possible to attend today’s event.”

The public meeting was originally scheduled to be in the President’s Conference Room after SEA requested the space in the Patel Center, but was moved days before to the Provost Conference Room across the hall. Freeman said in an email, the change in rooms was due to a scheduling conflict, and the President’s Conference Room was booked for a marketing meeting with the Athletics department during the scheduled time of the SEA meeting.

The meeting started with Hussein presenting SEA’s goal of having the university divesting its endowment funds from fossil fuels. The history of divesting in fossil fuels started in 2010 when Swarthmore College signed a resolution to divest in fossil fuels. Since then, Hussein said many more institutions across the country are following suit on the environmental issue.

“Just a few weeks ago, I heard 300 universities, cities and institutions are working toward divestment in the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “It’s a really big thing, and we already have six or seven schools signed on and starting campaigns.”

A leader of this divestment campaign at the USF St. Petersburg campus, Kevin Blossfeld, a senior majoring in economics and environmental policy, said he worked with USFSP’s Student Government to sign a resolution “in support of the university’s exploration of altering fund asset allocation methods to include the possibility for divestment from the fossil fuel industry” this month.

Hussein said the issue of investing in fossil fuels is not only an environmental issue, but also a social issue.

“Lower income and minority groups are affected more by environmental degradation because of the way we set up our industry. We put our coal-burning power plants in low income communities, our waste dumps out in rural areas, we put everything where it’s ‘not in my backyard.’ The person saying ‘not in my backyard’ is always somebody with a little more clout than a lower-income minority student or single mother… It’s definitely injustice, it’s a certain group of people, certain classes, certain types of people that are more unjustly targeted.”

She explained that many groups are affected differently by various environmental issues. For example, coal mining affects much of the population of the Appalachian Mountains, poor farmers in New England are affected by hydraulic fracking and citizens of Florida and other gulf coast states, as illustrated by the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill, are harmed by offshore oil drilling.

“When you find higher asthma rates in the inner city, its not a coincidence,” Hussein said. “It’s not a coincidence higher cancer rates exist in (the Appalachian Mountains). It doesn’t just happen, it happens because of all the things we put there.”

Sarah Carter, a senior majoring in environmental science and policy, said divesting in fossil fuels could benefit the university by potentially becoming a leader in sustainable technology.

“This is not just a social or environmental justice movement, we are investing in our own future,” Carter said. “Things like putting money in sustainable technology is good for us… Why not be a trailblazer in sustainable energy? There is no excuse not to right now.”

Carter and others in attendance at the meeting said they want the university to clearly outline which investments the university profits in and then make investments that are “socially responsible.” Carter also said she believes making the endowment funds, which amount to more than $334 million, more transparent would adhere to the university motto.

“(Divestment) goes along with our core values of truth and wisdom, and having these opaque investments in fossil fuels is neither truthful nor wise,” Carter said. “It’s essential to holding true to our own mission of sustainability and core values. If we want our financial structure to reflect those core values of truth and wisdom, there is no other solution but divestment.”

The university, as part of its mission to achieve sustainability, became a part of the climate change movement when President Genshaft signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2008, Freeman said.

Kebreab Ghebremichael, interim director for the Office of Sustainability, said the ACUPCC commits the university to be completely carbon neutral by becoming energy dependent and completely reducing carbon emissions by 2070. Ghebremichael said this commitment also holds the university accountable for reducing carbon emissions by 10 percent by 2015, 20 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2040.

The movement for USF to divest in fossil fuels however, according to the campaign’s web page at climatechallenge.org/groups/divestusf, calls for 100 percent divestment of funds from fossil fuel companies by 2020. USFSP’s divestment resolution calls for complete divestment within five years.

Hussein said the goal of her divestment campaign is to ensure the university hears student voices in support of clean energy. She said she will continue to seek support from university administrators and faculty, as well as students, until student voices are heard.

“We are working across campuses to show the power of the climate movement and activism, to show we are not just recycling and we are not just here for a year — we’re doing a lot more,” Hussein said.