On Feb. 27, students from Divest UMaine sat down with the Investment Committee of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. Our intentions were simple: We wanted the Investment Committee to empower a group of board members, faculty, staff and students to further study how the university system could begin to divest our endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
Divestment is a necessary step for our university community to take meaningful action against climate change and protect our endowment from an industry living in the past.
In 2009, nations from around the globe confirmed that carbon emissions should be reduced to avoid a rise in global average temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The temperature has already risen 0.85 degrees Celsius since 1880. Studies from researchers at Princeton University have shown that even if all emissions ceased, the planetary temperature would continue to rise, suggesting that the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to reverse warming trends. In another recent report, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen advocated for lowering the 2 degrees Celsius target, saying that a warming of this magnitude will cause “major dislocations for civilization.”
Using this now questionable 2 degrees Celsius target, the Carbon Tracker Initiative estimates that as little as 20 percent of total fossil fuel reserves can be burnt. Furthermore, the fossil fuel industry is locating new fuel reserves every day. The world must begin to impose strict limits on carbon emissions, and when it does so, up to 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves will lose their value.
What this means for the University of Maine System is that over 6 percent of its endowment is vulnerable to the economic fallout that will inevitably occur when carbon restrictions are implemented. When we invest in the fossil fuel industry, we are betting that it will do well. If the fossil fuel industry does well, our planet will not.
The response from the Investment Committee on Feb. 27 led us to believe that its members did not review the resources we provided them weeks before our meeting. Committee members assured us that the university system cares about climate change, but that divestment is too costly, especially in this time of financial crisis. The truth is that doing nothing is too costly for our endowment.
Committee members argued that there are not enough fossil-free options for us to invest in. We provided lists of managers who offer fossil-free portfolios. We invited a fossil-free investment expert to join us in the meeting, and the committee declined to ask him any questions about how divestment could work for us. To date, nine colleges and universities have divested, including College of the Atlantic and Unity College in Maine, as well as more than 20 cities. If they can do it, so can we.
The University of Maine continues to position itself as a leader in renewable technology and climate research. We must address the hypocrisy inherent in the university system’s support of an industry that is using its unparalleled political power to block solutions and lock us into a climate status quo. We must stand by the communities most impacted by climate change and by the practices of the fossil fuel industry, and we must do our part to facilitate a just transition away from unsustainable energy.
When the University of Maine divested our endowment from Apartheid South Africa in 1982, we set a precedent — that the morality of where we invest our money matters. Investing in the destruction of our climate is wrong, and we can do better.
Meaghan LaSala, a student at the University of Southern Maine, and Samantha Perez, a University of Maine student, are student leaders with Divest UMaine, a coalition of students, faculty, staff and alumni at the University of Maine System dedicated to aligning the university’s investments with its mission by divesting the endowment from fossil fuels.