An Odious Investment: Moving Beyond Coal at UC Berkeley









By Katie Hoffman, UC Berkeley student and CSSC member

Why is a world-renowned public university that prides itself on being a leader for social change, civil rights and progressive education investing without transparency in one of the most significant environmental problems of our time? Known for the infamous 1960s free speech movement, UC Berkeley has long been a diverse and vibrant community ripe with students and faculty willing to vocalize injustices at home and abroad. Except for one. To date, a couple of large endowments at UC Berkeley are heavily invested in the worst coal companies on the planet—known to many as the “filthy fifteen.” In fact, UCB is one of several institutions across the country invested in coal companies that have been responsible for widespread environmental degradation and gross human health abuses.

Coal is one of the dirtiest fuel sources on the planet and its environmental and health impacts are greatest on children, pregnant women, low-income communities and communities of color. The use and extraction of coal is contributing to global climate change, permanent damage to ecosystems, and an array of human health issues ranging from emphysema and mercury poisoning to death. In fact, it is estimated the ten worst offenders of the filthy fifteen—including companies like AEP, Duke and Southern— are responsible for upward of 17,000 deaths and tens of thousands of heart attacks per year.

So, even though UCB does not use coal-power for energy on campus, why on earth is the university investing millions—some of which comes from student fees— in an unsustainable, hazardous and frankly indefensible industry? The truth is coal investment is convenient, but that does not make it morally or economically wise. In fact, as former Apartheid divestment activist and Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund Ellen Dorsey has argued, the coal industry is the most economically vulnerable of the polluting industries. Coal is no longer cheap and abundant, and the cost to retrofit and maintain existing plants is skyrocketing.

Like the South Africa divestment campaign run by American university students in the 1970s and 1980s that helped topple Apartheid, the UCB community must join students across the nation who are demanding socially responsible investment on their campuses. It’s about time the UCB community demands our university withdraws financial support for the filthy 15, making a clear statement about our commitment to investing in companies that don’t profit from the systematic degradation of the natural world and gross violations of human rights. Like those who came before us, it is our time to refuse to passively take part in the operation of the machine—a machine fueled in part by investment in one of the dirtiest fuel sources known to man. To secure the chance of making this planet a more livable and just place for future generations, we must hold our investors accountable for their decisions and demand reinvestment in environmentally conscious and economically sustainable alternatives.


Posted in California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine.

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