by: Emili Abdel-Ghany, UC Davis Class of 2014 Community and Regional Development
California Student Sustainability Coalition Field Organizer for the Fossil Freedom Solidarity Organizing Program and former Senior Field Organizer for the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.
Over the past three years I have seen communities rise up together across UC Davis, the entire UC, and reaching out into California and beyond, even reaching the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s Money and Investing segment. The campaign to divest our communities from the fossil fuel industry is one that resonates with folks from every part of society. I have had the opportunity to help shape the campaign on the local (Davis) level and statewide, coordinating multiple actions at the Sacramento UC Regents meetings and others. I have personally dedicated a majority of my undergraduate career to this campaign and to the education of the broader campus and California community (UC Davis and beyond). Faith communities, those fighting for racial or gender equity, scientific communities, campus departments, educators and countless students have thanked the campaign leaders for enlightening them about what UC investments are doing. I have seen how galvanizing the issue of unsustainable investments can be for students, faculty, staff, and community. Almost every time I’ve told someone about this campaign their reaction is the same: They did not know that the UC invests donations in fossil fuel industries which constitutes a lack of transparency from the UC, and they do not want the UC to be investing in or even using fossil fuels. Further, they want to have a say in the process given that UC is a public institution of research and higher education, and are strongly opposed to the direction the UC is going in its relationship to the industry fueling climate change. Although the UC has just made significant strides to advance solar, it is a moral contradiction to invest in the companies driving the climate crisis while investing in those attempting to halt it.
Our movement for climate justice is reaching a tipping point this September, and here in California we must act to hold our flagship public institution accountable for financing climate chaos. UC Regents on the Committee on Investments will be voting on fossil fuel divestment at their meeting September 17th meeting at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. We need as many voices from community, students, faculty, administration present. The Chief Investment Officer (CIO) recently altered his original recommendation to the Committee on Investments (COI), which would have advocated for a loose ESG (Environmental and Social Governance) framework for investing and explicitly stated recommending a “No” vote on divestment. In my opinion, this recommendation would completely disregard and even misconstrue the meaning of the work of students and the community, since it does not take immediate action to halt all new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, drop the current holdings, and begin to reinvest in our communities. However, because of student and community pressure (by countless phone calls to the CIO) the Task Force recommended that the decision on Fossil Fuel Divestment be assigned to the COI, ending the Task Force. This minor concession is thanks to the people power generated by Fossil Free UC.
Any recommendation that the CIO makes to the Task Force will be taken very seriously by the Committee on Investments and voted on at their Friday September 12th meeting happening via teleconference in Oakland, LA, and Santa Barbara. If you would like to be involved in the momentum around this please email CSSC Field Organizer Jake Soiffer or Madeline Oliver. Most Regents will likely defend his position. We need to keep up the public pressure on decision makers. The Regents will likely still vote yes on whatever the CIO recommends to the COI. It will be incredibly important to have as many people at this meeting supporting our campaign as possible. If you are faculty we have a template letter that we would love for you sign onto/adapt and send you may contact CSSC Campaign Director, Emily Williams for this letter. Otherwise (for non-faculty), you can send your input to the UC Regents via email firstname.lastname@example.org, mail: Office of the Secretary and Chief of Staff to the Regents 1111 Franklin St.,12th floor Oakland, CA 94607 with attention to the Committee on Investments. The regent who chairs this committee is Paul Wachter, it would be good to address concerns to him since the decision is in the hands of the COI as of now. If you will be sending a letter after Friday please email it to CSSC Field Organizer Alyssa Lee and she will circulate it appropriately.
Divestment from these companies will apply the appropriate amount of public pressure on them to either change their business model or make room for sustainable and just solutions to the problems they helped create and continue to profit off of. The CEOs of the dirty companies the UC is investing in know exactly what they are doing. Exxon Mobile’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, claims that humans will adapt to climate change blowback. As I have learned in my Community and Regional Development class at UC Davis this summer, this is what is known as an ecological fallacy, to apply theory from one level of understanding (adaptation of species) onto another completely different level (the political economy). However, if we run with his theory and say that humans can just change their structures to weather climate change, it would actually be much more expensive for citizens and cities, but maybe not the CEO of Exxon Mobil. Yet again from what I have learned from leading scholars at the UC, we must examine who receives the burdens and benefits of our systems, namely our economic system, and why. It is a farce to say that each person has an equitable say, but rather we should recognize each entity deserves this and are systematically disadvantaged or privileged based on social identity/affiliation. CEOs of the top 200 most polluting fossil fuel companies did not earn their status, they did not rightfully gain the ear of politicians and UC Regents based on their character, to put it bluntly, they purchased that time with money “earned” from extraction and exploitation. What the youth of today are working towards is an appropriate seat at the table, a say in how our institutions are run. Changing our structures to appropriately reflect the population is difficult but it is one of the most worthwhile challenges of our time. This will help us move towards a future that is empowering for the wrongfully disempowered, healthy for all, and appropriately representative of the world we can to thrive within.
The Regents of the UC have taken bold action on divestment throughout history, namely with divestment from South African Apartheid. Solidarity shown from the US, namely the University of California, proved to be such an influential move that Nelson Mandela came to the US, to UC Berkeley, after he was released to thank the students for their dedication. I had the opportunity to visit South Africa this summer with UC Davis Study Abroad, partially inspiration by my work on the Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign through the California Student Sustainability Coalition. It was there that I learned how very important it is that we show international solidarity, and that those who have the ability to influence large-scale change do just that. I was able to go on a Toxic Tour of the Rustenburg mining communities in South Africa through the Community Monitors Action Network. This place is one of many where free trade, exploitation of land and labor can be felt and witnessed in a way that shakes a person to their core. It is impossible for me to forget the impact of our extractive economy on the lives of some of the most vulnerable. Most of the companies, like Anglo-American, are from western nations like the U.S. or the UK; this means any profit gained from exploiting places like these go to CEOs and shareholders in the US. It is often called the Resource Curse when a valuable resource is found since it results in the exacerbation of current oppressive systems and dramatised wealth disparity.
Rustenburg is a microcosm of the larger issue of our time. The Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign targets the top 200 companies who own the most carbon reserves because we recognize that the extraction, distribution, refining and finally burning of carbon has an especially devastating impact on the lives of every person on this planet. Climate change has effects that are happening now, it is not just a looming threat in the future. If a person is not feeling it, that does not negate the fact that counties have run out of water in the U.S., that people have died from fossil fuel explosions, that indigenous land is being stolen and stripped, that the youth of today are afraid of bringing new people into this world because of how much worse they fear it will get. We are fighting for our future, yes, but we are also fighting for today.
The UC has to lead. We have to act now. The Regents have the opportunity of a lifetime to listen to the outcry of the people and divest NOW!
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You can find an excerpt of this essay on the UC Davis Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Department’s website.