Everything You Wanted to Know About Fossil Free AU (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

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by Camille Perrault

Divest $19 million. That’s a phrase, if you have any awareness of your surroundings, you’ve probably seen it plastered across campus over the past few weeks. Whether on the side of Ward, chalked in front of Bender Library, or scrawled on the whiteboards in MGC, “Divest” has taken over American’s campus. But what does it mean? Who wrote it? Why?

To get to the bottom of these pressing questions I grappled with all last week, I reached out to Claudia Steiner and Miranda Dotson, two members of Fossil Free AU, the organization responsible for the chalking campaign on campus. Claudia and Miranda explained to me that American University has an endowment, of which several million dollars are invested in corporations that exploit fossil fuels, in particular coal. Fossil Free AU would like AU to divest these funds into other, more sustainable energy sources.

According to Dotson, President Sylvia Burwell is not in favor of divestment, as it is not the “financially sound” decision to make for the university. Although it is ultimately the Board Of Trustee’s decision to divest, Fossil Free AU believes that the support of the university president would go a long way in convincing the Board.

The demand to divest from the fossil fuel industry is nothing new, and the campaign has been around for about a decade now. However, fossil free movements are gaining momentum across the country due to recent fears about the severity of impending climate change. According to a recently released landmark report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, avoiding the impending damage of climate change will require us to “transform the world economy at a speed and scale that has no documented historic precedent.”

We are on track to raise the global temperature of about 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040, and an increase of 4 degrees by the end of this century. According to this report, the situation is far worse than climate scientists ever believed previously, and civilization has little to no time to act - the report claims that we must cut our global emissions by 50% in the next 12 years if we hope to limit the extent of warming.

It is increasingly evident that the current administration has no plans to take any sort of concrete action to combat this threat, with President Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and promising to revitalize the American coal industry. If the United States wants to work to combat climate change, or at least lessen the effects, it is apparent that citizens are going to need to take responsibility into their own hands and hold polluters (and those who invest and enable them) accountable.

American University, a school that prides itself on being environmentally conscious, having LEED certified facilities, and achieving carbon neutrality, is not taking the most important step to combat climate change. Divestment from the fossil fuel industry sends the message that American University refuses to be complicit in the destruction of the climate. Remaining invested in these industries is hypocritical of the university and disregards the very real threats that climate change will have on the future of its students.

As of the publication of this article, faculty at American have placed signs outside of MGC regarding “proper” chalking techniques for clubs to engage in, claiming that organizations who fail to abide by these rules would face fines.

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How long has Fossil Free been on campus? What are some of the goals the organization has, and what are some of the strategies you use to accomplish your goals?

This is our 9th year as an organization on campus, however the national fossil-free campaign has been around much longer. Our mission statement is to compel American University to divest our endowment from corporations that exploit fossil fuels. When we say compel AU, what we really mean is compel AU’s Board of Trustees as they control where our financial investments go.

In our mission statement, we note that divestment should come from a place of moral catalyst. We should be compelling AU and its board of trustees to move these funds because fossil fuels are bad for the climate, they’re bad for marginalized communities, they’re bad for the Earth in general, so it should be a moral argument. But we also use financial strategies. On Friday we launched our Responsible Endowment Fund. The REF is a floating account to which we want donors to direct their money, rather than to the endowment, and this money will go to the University next year if they commit to divesting within five years. If they do not commit within a year, this money will become a Green scholarship for incoming freshman.

When did you start that?

This Friday (October 19th, 2018)! It has been in the works for a while, but the link to the campaign is now live on our Facebook page.

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What does divestment mean for the AU community? Why is the school against it?

Our endowment is about $650 million. We currently have $18.8 million invested in corporations that exploit fossil fuels through a consulting firm called Cambridge Associates. Divestment would include us working with Cambridge Associates to move this money, approximately $19 million spread out amongst several companies, out of the stocks and shares of fossil fuel companies and into more sustainable solutions. What that means, in a big-picture sense, is that we would not be contributing to not profiting from the investments of fossil fuels and therefore the continuance of climate change. These corporations are continuing to contribute to climate change and are complicit in climate chaos.

The university's Board of Trustees’ goal is for American University to profit above everything else. That’s their goal. Right now, these particular corporations that exploit fossil fuels, say for example Exxon, are very profitable. So in the view of the board, divesting and taking this money out of these stocks is not the smartest short-term decision for the university. What we would say, however, is that:

1. Finances should not be the only issue at stake - climate change is a very real and very pressing issue, and
2. Very soon, within the next 10 years, which is what we and other organizations predict, is when sustainable energy with generally and categorically become more profitable than fossil fuels. Other universities have started to pull their investments out of coal, all of our investments are in coal - rather than oil or natural gas.

Doug Kudravetz, AU’s Chief Financial Officer, claims it would take about $4 million to work with Cambridge Associates to divest these funds. To us, that is a very easy choice - we should be more than willing to spend the money because in the long run, us having a jump in investments in renewable and clean energy will profit the university more than investments in a dying industry.

Several other schools have divested from Fossil fuel industries, including Yale University. Do you think that a more corporate-driven, financial strategy is going to be effective in halting climate change?

I absolutely do. Those universities that have fully and partially divested, like Yale and Syracuse, are great examples, they have seen an increase in interest in their schools as students value their commitment to prevent climate change. I do think those other universities will influence AU. AU is trying to sell us this notion that if we try to stop using straws, start recycling and composting on campus - all of which are great things to do, don’t get me wrong, - but they’re trying to convince us that that’s going to be the solution. And that’s not even close.

We have to convince the people in power, the people who have money invested in these corporations, to make the responsible and socially aware decisions. It’s not about the individual decisions we make, even though we should try to lead more sustainable and environmentally friendly lives. It’s completely about the corporations and the institutions, the systems that actively participate in and also perpetuate climate change.

The reason why I wanted to reach out to Fossil Free is because I was intrigued by your campaign around campus. Have you received any sort of push-back from students or the university about it?

The University didn’t reach out to us directly, but they did re-publish some 2016 guidelines about chalking. It’s very specific - basically implying that we were vandalizing or breaking university rules. Any vandalism we took part in this week - the effects of it are nowhere near as permanent as the effects of destroying the climate with investments in fossil fuels. So we’re not worried about that.

Additionally, pushback we may get from students is that it is a hindrance to maintenance staff. To that we say it is washable chalk - it does no lasting damage and is easy to remove. And regarding the maintenance staff, every time we plan a campaign we consider the staff’s role in clean-up. And we do not want to create a bigger burden for the staff, because we attribute the investment in fossil fuels solely to AU’s administration and their board of trustees. But we do believe it is worth the cost of having to wash off the chalk if it spreads awareness to students who previously did not know that we were invested in fossil fuels.

Have you gotten more attention since the campaign?

Yes, a few have reached out to our Facebook page and emailed us. Many of those students had no prior knowledge of the situation, which is great and exactly what we were aiming to do. It definitely angered some people who already disagreed with us, but we are here to inform students about the problem and contribute to a conversation. If we can generate conversation and interest, that’s what we’re here to do.