by Ophir Bruck
On Thursday, February 6th, saturated in coffee and cardboard pizza, the Graduate Assembly of the University of California Berkeley (GA, basically the graduate students’ Senate) voted two-thirds majority in favor of UC Berkeley and UC system-wide fossil fuel divestment. The adopted resolution, 1311B, also calls on the GA to divest its own funds, around $475,000, a fraction of the $3.3 Billion UC Berkeley fund, from fossil fuels. The GA will begin immediately working with the Berkeley Endowment Management Company (BEMCO) to complete the process within 5-years, more than enough time.
Passing the resolution through the GA, my first experience navigating student government, proved nothing short of an entertaining ride and a rich learning experience. What I, and the GA Environmental Sustainability Committee who sponsored the bill, thought would be a smooth and painless show of support, turned out to be lengthy process that revealed the more conservative nature of some of Berkeley’s graduate student community. The resolution went up for a vote back in December, and was tabled after a number of students passionately asserted their concerns around potential impacts to the university’s endowment returns, and, more close to home for some in the room, to research funding from fossil fuel companies.
Over the next two months, to my surprise, I was fielding emails and phone calls and meeting for coffee with concerned graduate student delegates who wanted to voice their thoughts and feelings and discuss what this resolution could mean for their department’s fossil fuel industry-funded research. One Chemical Engineering PhD student said she supports divestment and the need to take a political and symbolic stand against the fossil fuel industry, but as long as it doesn’t affect her or the department’s research funding. Another Chem E student, who is employed by BP to research biofuels, was adamantly opposed; he felt as though this resolution equated him and his colleagues with the South African apartheid government, and that in addition to putting his research funding at risk, fossil fuel divestment would be ineffective in pushing for a carbon tax.
Instead of getting up and leaving these conversations frustrated and jaded with Berkeley’s grad students, I stayed and dug deeper to hear where they are coming from, which turned out to be a really valuable learning opportunity. After some digging, I learned that the first student felt stuck between a rock and a hard place given her department’s close ties and reliance on the industry, and wanted to know that we are carrying out divestment responsibly. The other student acknowledged that, while some fossil fuel companies might be slightly better than others, as a whole, the industry is blocking the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy. Turns out, as an international students, he’s also just really cynical of the U.S. government and feels that a carbon tax will not happen in time, or at all, and therefore divestment to him is a waste of time: “When I see a carbon tax,” he said, “then I’ll know that divestment was a good idea.”
With eyes glazed over after hours of debating how much funding to allocate to lunch-time meals for events, among other exciting topics, the roughly 80 delegates in the room perked up for what turned out to be a lively debate about the utility of fossil fuel divestment. It was democracy at its finest and it all ended with an electronic straw poll.
And so, the UC Berkeley graduate students have spoken: DIVEST!
Congrats to the GA for becoming the first graduate senate of the 10-campus UC system to step up and stand on the right side of history, joining 8 undergraduate student senates and the UC Santa Barbara faculty senate.
With the recent formation of a Regents’ Task Force on Socially Responsible Investing, tasked with immediately looking into the feasibility of divesting the UC system’s $11 billion endowment from fossil fuels, we will continue building power on and off campus so that Berkeley and the UC also come around to stand with students, faculty, and alumni on the right side of history.