Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Marching for the Future

SO, we rocked it.

That's a really short way to say that Student Climate Culture, along with members of the UVM student body, an interfaith delegation and 2,000 (2,000!) other Vermonters made history this weekend by participating in the largest climate march in history.
The student section (photo courtesy of thedailyorange.com) 

 An estimated 400,000 people in total marched in NYC September 21st, with tens of thousands around the world taking part in solidarity marches, from Bolivia to Australia. The march took place two days before today's UN climate summit, a massive show of support for worldwide climate action. What was incredible about the march was the energy--seeing so many people fired up about climate activism! The march brought together indigenous communities, food justice advocates, students and labor groups, children and families. Many of us from UVM marched with students from universities around the country, which naturally included OTHER DIVESTMENT GROUPS! Orange squares abounded.

 It's hard to really explain how inspiring the march was. Maybe because it was the march finally showed a side of the environmental movement that we haven't seen much of yet-- a diverse group of activists, united around a common message, making the fight we face political and personal. Maybe the march at one point stretched for 4 miles in midtown Manhattan. Maybe because there were 400,000 protesters, and not a single reported arrest.
Protesters take Times Square! Photo courtesy of Wxxinews.org

 At 12:58, the entire crowd was silent to honor those who have died as a result of climate change, followed by a roar of outrage that came from the back of the march and built until we were all screaming and stamping. Us protesters might have returned to Burlington in the wee hours of the night, exhausted and with shredded vocal chords, but it was worth it to be a part of something so awesome.

 Wanna know more? Click here or here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

So What does the Orange Square Even Mean?

I'm so glad you asked.
The red square was crafted to be the symbol of student power- because as college students we are 'squarely in the red' (get it?). The sign specifically comes from student protests in Quebec, where students went on strike for lower tuition. (Read about it here) The Divest movement did not want to be lumped with the 'green' movement- we are new, mobilized and ready for action- and we know that climate justice is about more than the Sierra Club. So the orange square was chosen as a nod to student power.

Here's a great photo from another university divestment campaign (Image courtesy of http://breakingdowndivestment.wordpress.com/tag/fossil-fuels/page/2/)

Who Are Those Kids with the Orange Squares?

Last Friday, we at student Climate Culture were joined by our friends and allies in the UVM community and marched into the Board Meeting to remind them, once again, that we will NOT take their casual rejection of our proposal lying down.

BUR 0207 uvm divest C1

Students Ian Goodnow and Julie Elfin spoke passionately, urging the Board to reconsider their decision to remain invested in dirty energy. "We're putting divestment back on the table" Julie proclaimed, and we protesters put our orange squares down on the table and filed out, singing protest songs. We convened outside in the lounge to get to know some new faces and talk to the Cynic and Free Press reporters. You can also check out the Free Press coverage here : http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20140207/NEWS02/302070036/

Photo credit to the Free Press

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We've Got a Message for Sullivan and the Board of Trustees #rejectiondenied

To: Tom Sullivan, President
CC: Robert Cioffi, Chair, Board of Trustees
Corinne Thompson, Board of Trustees Coordinator
From: Student Climate Culture
RE: Fossil Fuel Divestment

President Thomas Sullivan,

Student Climate Culture is writing this letter to you because we feel that our Board’s Investment Subcommittee made an unfair decision regarding fossil fuel divestment, and we need your help.

It has been a very long time since the University of Vermont community has been as unified around a single issue as it is now around divestment. All of the governing bodies, upon hearing the divestment argument, have supported divestment by enormous margins. The same goes for the individuals that make up UVM: we’ve garnered almost 3,000 petition signatures in the past year, equivalent to approximately 20% of the entire community. Provided the chance to make our case, we are confident that we can answer any and all concerns about the issue.

Over the past year, we have patiently upheld and respected UVM's administrative process. As the Investment Subcommittee discussed the divestment proposal, we sat silently during their conversations, yet the opportunity never arose for us to correct the assumptions made by our Trustees. Consequently, the Subcommittee made its decision about our proposal based on misguided beliefs.

It has been implied that we should be grateful that the Subcommittee did not discuss the issue in executive session during their meetings. It has been implied that we should be grateful for the opportunity to create a three-minute video on short notice, in the middle of finals week. It has been implied that we should be grateful for having an established process for airing our concerns. But the reality has been that with each step up the administrative ladder, our voice gets more and more lost.

Again, given the opportunity, we can address each and every one of the Subcommittee’s concerns, but we have been stifled. After having struggled with the bureaucratic process as best we could, we have met a brick wall and see no clear path towards having the community’s voice heard. Given the historic level of support that fossil fuel divestment has received, we feel that it was unfair for the Subcommittee to rush to a decision so quickly, especially without allowing community members to weigh in on its discussion.

We are reaching out to you to ask for help. We are aware that you set the Board’s agenda in conjunction with Chair Cioffi, and we are hoping that you will stand up for the community and put divestment back on the table, to give the Board the opportunity to hear out the divestment proposal. We would also be happy to meet with you in person to discuss this issue in greater depth. A two-page summary of our proposal is attached to this letter.

Conventional responses to address the changing climate have failed. We need to address the root of the problem directly, and to do so effectively, we need leadership from those in positions of power. We hope you can help UVM lead on climate action, and we are grateful for your time.

Student Climate Culture

Contact: StudentClimateCulture@gmail.com

#rejectiondenied (AKA a Summary of Our Divestment Proposal)

The University of Vermont Should Divest:

A summary of the science that sparked the movement: The maximum allowable increase in global average temperatures is 2°C. We have already increased temperatures by 0.8°C. The remaining 1.2°C allots civilization a carbon budget of 565 gigatons before we reach a climatic tipping point, generating feedback loops that will create a world completely unrecognizable to the one we live in and depend on currently. The fossil fuel industry has on its collective balance sheet 2,795 gigatons of carbon, five times more than is safe for civilization. The problem with the fossil fuel industry, in this case, is not that it engages in antisocial business practices like paying employees poverty-level wages to work in unsafe conditions--those are corporate governance issues that can be addressed from within the companies. The real problem is that this industry’s fundamental business model is to permanently strip humanity of the possibility of a stable climate.
                According to the most recent estimate, the climate change brought about by this industry’s insidious products kills over 5 million people each year[1], a figure whose growth will surely outpace all other forms of harm for the next century, Most damage goes on in developing nations, and in developed nations, the burden falls mostly on largely working class communities of color. These people are the least responsible for the warming and instability affecting them, yet they disproportionately feel the consequences. To convert the humanitarian crisis into economic language, the global instability brought about by climate change is anticipated to increase portfolio risk by 20% in the next 10 years[2], knocking 5% off global GDP annually, with that figure expected to grow to at least 20% at our current pace of inaction.[3]  These economic tolls are brought about by extreme drought, storms, and unpredictability, and by the conflicts sparked by their resulting resource scarcity.
Looking down the barrel of our future, our generation sees the fossil fuel industry’s plans to take society far past the realm of safety and stability, and we are gripped by a sense of sheer terror. Desperation is why divestment is the fastest growing movement on college campuses in decades. To avoid the worst of climate change, to have any hope for stability, we need to do everything in our power to prevent the fossil fuel industry from creating an inhospitable, unpredictable world.
                This is why we are calling on our institutions to divest their portfolios’ holdings in fossil fuels. Society needs to acknowledge that 80% of the carbon that the industry currently owns must remain in the ground, with absolutely no exceptions. We need the governments of the world to enforce that red line, but without dramatic measures taken by the public, they will not. The fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful and aggressive lobbyists in existence, bullying governments across the world to give them almost $2 trillion in subsidies annually[4], in spite of their already-healthy profit margins, and in spite of the planetary consensus that we need to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. Without an extraordinary public movement to support our politicians’ efforts to do the right thing, the fossil fuel industry will certainly bring us past the climate’s tipping point, prioritizing their profits above planetary health every step of the way. This is why we must divest from the industry.
                A report analyzing the political and financial implications of divestment was published by the University of Oxford last October[5]. It was the first academic study of its kind, and found that the impacts of divestment are extremely powerful. Successful divestment campaigns in the past have had an almost-100% success rate in pushing for restrictive legislation on the targeted industry, with an indirect impact of increased capital costs on top of the new legislation. “The outcome of the stigmatization process,” the authors write, “which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.” When colleges and universities passed Apartheid South African disinvestment policies, the federal government took action.  When we passed tobacco divestment policies, the federal government took action.  Divestment is an established practice with a history of success, and so far has been used only in extreme circumstances.  In the case of fossil fuels, this is perhaps the most extreme circumstance we have seen yet, and we need everyone to take action.
                If we had a hundred years to address the issue through shareholder resolutions and individual sustainability efforts, we could handle the threat of climate change. However, at current pace, we are scheduled to pass the 2°C tipping point in just 15 years. We need an unprecedented transformation of our energy supply if we wish to pass a recognizable world over to today’s children. Dramatic change is needed. This is why we must divest.

The University of Vermont Can Divest:

                All things considered, fossil fuel divestment is a textbook-example of the systems theory concept of a leverage point: it requires a relatively small amount of effort, and creates an enormous impact. Our proposal to screen out the stocks of 200 companies[6] is miniscule compared to the existing universe of investment mechanisms we currently use, and available research has overwhelmingly found that divestment is a safe investment decision.[7]
                That said, it may well be difficult at this point in time to fully exclude all securities related to fossil fuels from our endowment. This is particularly true for less transparent, commingled funds. However, it is certainly possible to screen out our direct holdings in the stock of those 200 companies, and fossil-free alternatives for our more complicated investments will arise in due time. After all, in just its first year of existence, the fossil fuel divestment campaign received endorsements from the Presidents of the United States, the World Bank, and a collection of foundations managing close to $2 billion in assets.[8] (Not to mention the countless colleges, municipalities, religious institutions and individuals that have divested their portfolios.) The market is already beginning to respond to the increased demand for fossil-free strategies that this movement is generating.

How the University of Vermont Should Pursue Divestment:

                Given that divestment is a politically effective, necessary strategy to shift the way the world treats the fossil fuel industry, and the research that has found that it is a harmless proposal for the average portfolio, here are the steps Student Climate Culture recommends the UVM Board of Trustees take to divest our endowment of fossil fuels:
1.       Become more familiar with the proposal and its nuance, from all sides. Read the cited studies, let Student Climate Culture present to the Board, and invite a fossil-free investor to speak about how it’s done. 
2.       Request that Cambridge Associates phase out holdings of the 200 companies in directly-held public equity over the next 2 years by placing screens on existing funds, or replacing them with fossil-free alternatives.
3.       Request that Cambridge Associates research, develop and implement a proposal to replace carbon-intensive accounts in the Real Assets class with fossil-free alternatives that behave in a similar manner.
4.       For indirectly-managed accounts, request that Cambridge Associates engage with the fund managers about the feasibility of side-letter agreements regarding the exclusion of fossil fuel company stocks. If this is unsuccessful, transfer to a fossil-free commingled account when the opportunity arises.
5.       Commit to a fossil-free endowment being achieved by 2020.
a.        “Fossil-free” is defined as the exclusion of the stocks of the 200 identified companies.
b.       If it can be shown that, over a period of five years or greater, the fossil fuel divestment policy has significantly impeded endowment growth, then the policy may be revised.

           These recommendations are intended to be a broad overview of our suggested path to a fossil free endowment. We lack the resources to be able to research and compare existing strategies at a professional level, and do not claim to hold such a level of expertise. We believe Cambridge Associates should construct a much more detailed plan on how to a fossil-free portfolio with as little impact to our portfolio as possible, and analysis of the impact the process will have on the endowment.
           It is essential that we bring our investments in line with our values, and that we refuse to profit from an industry whose products are destroying our need for safety and stability. We believe UVM can act in a way that meets both our future need for climatic stability and current need for endowment stability. We are only asking for the chance to do so.

[1] DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor: http://goo.gl/AZeCF5
[2] Mercer:  Climate Change & Its Implications for Strategic Asset Allocation: goo.gl/yS1rEj
[3] Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change: http://goo.gl/Ojs9jq
[4] These subsidies are equivalent to 2.5 of global GDP, according to the IMF: http://goo.gl/Uj8gF
[5] University of Oxford’s Stranded Asset Program: http://goo.gl/a5R561
[6] A list of the 200 companies can be found in this report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative: http://goo.gl/HOYqed
[7] Here are 6 independent financial analyses that found fossil fuel divestment has a neutral or positive impact on returns, and a minute impact on risk: http://goo.gl/S0K6F2, http://goo.gl/rWz5g2, http://goo.gl/b7uhGg, http://goo.gl/6TMluS, http://goo.gl/xzOMgm, http://goo.gl/gG5gbS.
[8] President Barack Obama’s endorsement: http://goo.gl/X1mB9T; President Jim Yong Kim’s endorsement: http://goo.gl/2fhxVL; major foundations’ divestment commitments: http://goo.gl/A8LLhq.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Very Important Date

Thursday, Members of Student Climate Culture carpooled our way to the Montpelier statehouse, to show our complete support of a bill seeking to divest the VT pension fund from fossil fuels. Dozens of students from Middlebury and UVM came, and we were given the chance to speak out on the issue of divestment. What was awesome was that we as students were able to express how much divestment means- it doesn’t end with UVM, it’s not just about the hundreds of other schools around the country with divestment campaigns of their own- it’s a huge movement that counts the government of the Green Mountain State as a member of its ranks. And that’s pretty cool.
Here we are! Caroline Decunzo is here shown giving a great speech on climate justice and divestment.

After some great speeches from several UVM and Middlebury students, as well as a VT state senator, we had the opportunity to talk with Middlebury organizers about future collaborations (both of our divestment campaigns were officially rejected about a year after the start of our respective campaigns). With future events planned with organizers from around the state and such a great show of support to divest from our state government, spring 2014 is looking good.

Check out Alex's great article in defense of divestment!

BFP editor Aki Soga made an incorrect assumption in an editorial he wrote regarding a decision not to divest UVM’s endowment of 200 fossil fuel companies. The decision was made by the UVM Board of Trustees’ Investment Subcommittee (ISC), and the assumption made was that those supporting the divestment proposal lacked the financial analysis needed to address the ISC’s concerns. This could not be farther from the truth.

Student Climate Culture, the group spearheading the proposal, has been addressing divestment from both a moral and financial perspective for over a year now, and our research into investment returns, diversification, etc., is partially responsible for the level of support our proposal has received from the UVM community. The 3-member ISC simply didn’t allow us to make our case.

There are two components to divestment: whether we Should, and whether we Can. The Should is simple: (1) It is immoral to wreck the planet, and therefore it is immoral to profit from that wreckage. (2) An institution isn’t taking climate change seriously unless it’s willing to confront its cause. (3) Last fall, a study published by the University of Oxford found that the indirect impacts of divestment, including restrictive legislation and increased capital costs, pose serious threats to the medium- and long-term profitability of fossil fuel production. So if it’s wrong for corporations to wreck the planet, and we’re capable of stopping them, we’re obligated to do so. These are moral truths; renowned ethicists like Peter Singer have written essays affirming divestment on these grounds.

The other component, whether we Can, is complicated, but not impossible. A number of divestment-related studies have recently been published by well-respected financial analysts, including S&P Capital IQ, the Tellus Institute, Morgan Stanley Capital International, and more. Each analysis finds the same conclusion: If done with prudence, divestment has a neutral or positive impact on endowment returns, with miniscule increases in portfolio risk.

Because the available research says definitively that we Should and Can divest from fossil fuel stocks, the UVM community has rallied around the proposal. The Student Government Association, Graduate Student Senate, Faculty Senate and Staff Council are the four representative bodies for the University; they report directly to President Sullivan, ensuring University policy is in line with community wishes. We’ve made presentations to each of these bodies, and each one subsequently recommended that UVM divest from 200 specific fossil fuel corporations. No resolution has garnered less than 72% support, and there was unanimous support from Staff Council. Furthermore, we’ve collected about 3,000 petition signatures affirming our proposal, almost one third of the student body. UVM historians would be hard-pressed to find an issue that has received the degree of support fossil fuel divestment has, and to dismiss the issue as quickly as the ISC did is an insult to the community.

These investors, on conference call from their offices in Boston and New York during UVM’s winter break, made no attempt to learn why the UVM community spoke so strongly in favor of divestment. Citing “a lack of institutional consensus” within UVM, the three investors exchanged opinions for a short while, and ultimately decided for themselves that UVM will not pursue divestment.

We’re not surprised by their profoundly undemocratic behavior, nor are we disheartened by their decision. We expected them to ignore the community’s stated interests, and they did. Yet, the divestment issue is not over. Now that we’ve run the bureaucratic gauntlet and met a brick wall, we need everyone’s help in tearing it down.

The sum total of the voices of the UVM community, both direct (i.e. petition signatures) and indirect (i.e. resolutions passed by each representative body), should have more weight in deciding UVM’s future than three faceless investors. If you agree with that, please write President Sullivan a letter requesting that he stand up for the community he’s supposed to be leading, and put divestment back on the agenda. If you want to get involved personally, “Like” “UVM Divest Now” on Facebook to get updates, and mark your calendar for the next time our Trustees meet, February 7 - 8. Let’s greet them with open arms and offer a second chance to get divestment right.

Alex Prolman