Fossil Free UC fought for over six years to get the University of California (UC) system to divest from fossil fuels. But when we finally won last month, we found out from an op-ed by university investment managers in the Los Angeles Times, which tried to erase the vast movement that had forced this epic result—arguably the largest anti-corporate campaign in history.
So we write now to set the record straight: UC’s investment managers claim they scrubbed the system’s endowment and pension funds of fossil fuel stocks because they had become too financially risky. Fair enough; that’s been one of our arguments all along. But what drove thousands of students, staff, faculty, and alumni to organize over this last decade was not the finances. It was the moral obscenity of these investments. With climate disruption setting new records, we need to undercut the fossil fuel industry in every possible way.
The UC will be divesting its $13.4 billion endowment and $80 billion pension fund from fossil fuel companies, including directly and indirectly managed funds, private and public, and stocks and bonds. This is the largest divestment of any public university ever. “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk,” said UC officials.
Fossil fuel divestment campaigners first alerted the UC system to the fact that fossil fuels are risky investments in 2013. Had the university system divested then, it would have saved a lot of money. Indeed, fossil free funds have been outperforming funds that include fossil fuels. As faculty organizer and UC San Diego professor Eric Halgren puts it, the financial case “removes the last excuse of fund managers” to do nothing.
While the increasing financial risks of fossil fuel exposure are significant—and offer a clear indication that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end—this singular and narrow focus on the financial argument misses a far more important narrative. As Fossil Free Cal students remind us: “Financial misfortune is not the sole consequence of continued investment in the fossil fuel industry.” If extraction of more fossil fuels in a time of climate emergency is a moral obscenity, then investments in extraction is complicity in that obscenity.
Students demonstrate the power of divestment when they compel the institutions we know and trust to publicly confront the industry and say: “enough.” We exhibit this power when these institutions cut ties with, and undermine, an industry which continues to seek new reserves and drill new wells in an era where we cannot build any new fossil fuel infrastructure. By divesting, the UC signaled to all other institutions that the age of fossil fuels is over.
For decades, the UC padded its portfolio with investments in the industry that has sickened, maimed, and degraded communities in California and around the world, and threatened the futures of the university’s students and of generations to come. As students at Fossil Free Santa Cruz argue, “Divestment is a tactic of social change designed to fundamentally dismantle corrupt systems on the basis of morality, sustainability, progress, and justice.”
This reality led students to organize. Since 2012, students have coordinated across the 10 UC campuses to educate the student body, reach out to faculty, and run referendum campaigns. Students brought the moral imperative and financial data to the UC Regents and UC Investments Office in reports and by sitting on the university’s own committees. Faculty then joined the fight; this June, 77 percent of UC faculty voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Even some UC chancellors joined the call. Following a three-day occupation of the administration building in 2017, UC Santa Barbara’s Chancellor Henry Yang became the first to endorse divestment and stand with his students, convincing three other chancellors in the weeks that followed to also publicly endorse the campaign. During this time, concentrations of carbon dioxide broke 400 parts-per-million (safe levels being below 350) and the university’s home state of California suffered record-breaking, devastating fires and drought—which were intensified and fueled by climate change.
If it were merely a financial decision, the UC would have divested years ago. It took a system-wide movement, coupled with the stark reality of living on the brink of climate catastrophe, to make them act.
Yet, instead of uplifting student voices – or even using this platform to bolster the university’s own claims of being a “climate leader”—UC investment administrators seemed to shy away from this victory against the industry. They would rather be remembered as impartial and indifferent to ‘politics’, beholden solely to the weighing of economic costs and benefits, while the ‘politics’ they so wish to dismiss will determine the viability of their students’ futures.
Whether the Regents and administrators like it or not, this victory places our university, finally, on the right side of history. As Alyssa Lee, former Fossil Free UCLA member and the current director of Divest Ed, the national training and strategy hub for student fossil fuel divestment campaigns, said:
“Hundreds of other divestment campaigns across the country have seen the same kind of stalling, excuses, and false promises that the UC administration gave to Fossil Free UC. But now that they, as the largest school system in the country, are divesting, we see that victory is not only possible but on the horizon.”
This victory could be a historical turning point—it could lead other institutions like Harvard to divest or banks to stop funding continued fossil fuel exploration. And this is why setting the record straight is so important: this record adds a John Hancock-sized signature to the declaration that we are breaking free from the industry that has done the most to fuel the climate crisis. Thanks to the thousands of campaigners who worked tirelessly toward this goal, this declaration beckons us toward a more just and equitable future.
The UC has moved its money out of fossil fuel companies, and this victory was won by the divestment campaign that has helped teach a generation of climate activists to take the fight to the fossil fuel industry. But this is a climate emergency, and there is much more to be done; banks remain recalcitrant. Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi, and RBC continue not only to invest in fossil fuel expansion but also to ramp up investments as the climate crisis worsens. Now, we’ve got to take the fight to them too.
Communities like Richmond, California and Black Mesa in the Navajo Nation are leading the way and demonstrating how we might decolonize, decarbonize, decentralize, and democratize our energy transition with solutions that puts power back in the hands of people. The UC’s commitment to divest must be accompanied by a commitment to reinvest in these climate solutions and a just energy transition. As such, our work will not be finished until the money that the UC has moved out of the extractive fossil fuel economy is reinvested in one that is regenerative, restorative, and just.