Climate groups question if progress has been made since ‘U’ froze fossil fuel investments

Friday, October 2, 2020 - 4:12pm

Students are frustrated with a lack of communication from the University’s administration about these investments.

Students are frustrated with a lack of communication from the University’s administration about these investments. Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

After the Board of Regents froze investments in fossil fuels in February, students are frustrated with a lack of communication from the University’s administration about these investments. 

After the vote to pause direct investments from the University of Michigan’s endowment, Regent Mark Bernstein (D) in February said the University would not make any new investments until they reevaluated their policy.

“We will not bring forward new direct investments in fossil fuel companies while we study the investment policy of the University of Michigan with regard to all fossil fuel investments in a deliberative, thorough, inclusive and responsible manner,” Bernstein said.

Engineering junior Leah Webber, a member of Climate Action Movement, said the University’s administration and the Board of Regents have been silent on the issue of fossil fuel investments since the vote more than seven months ago. 

“We’re looking to see if there have been any updates (on investment in fossil fuels) and the resounding answer is ‘no,’” Webber said. “The regents have been avoiding this problem, which is quite frustrating.”

The Michigan Daily reached out to all of the regents to learn what the board has been doing on the issue of fossil fuels since the freeze. Only Regent Mark Bernstein (D) responded prior to publication. 

Bernstein wrote in an email to The Daily he personally supported the freeze and eventual divestment but did not go into details on what the board has done regarding the matter.

“I remain unwavering regarding my support for a ‘freeze’ on future fossil fuel related investments,” Bernstein wrote. “We need to stop funding our destruction and do everything we can to disrupt the flow of capital that enables the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. This requires a thoughtful divestment from these investments. The University is currently studying this issue and I remain focused on ensuring that this process occurs in a responsible, fully informed way.”

Public Policy senior Sabrina Butcher is part of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group lobbying federal policymakers for action on climate change. 

She said the University has done a poor job of communicating with students on myriad issues, with climate change being just one example. Butcher said the freeze in investments was a sign the board is listening to student voices but noted that this varied based on the individual regent. 

She also pointed out that the University had other matters to deal with, such as complaints about conditions in quarantine housing and recent strikes on campus.

“(There’s) a lot going on this year that doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with divestment from fossil fuels,” Butcher said. “This year, I’m pessimistic.” 

Webber said that while individual regents have reached out to CAM with concerns about COVID shifting the focus off of fossil fuel divestment, the organization is disappointed by the inaction they see on this issue.

“We’re very frustrated with the regents’ lack of action and, to be quite frank, this lack of action is not unique to this situation,” Webber said.

Public Policy senior Grace Hermann is chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, which has supported CAM in its fight for divestment. She said the University underestimates students’ understanding of political issues like divestment.

“Students rightfully have a lot of distrust of the administration and the regents. Although some regents do their best to communicate with students, in general, there is a misconception that students are operating in this idealistic but unrealistic realm,” Hermann said. “The thing is, the students calling for this change are incredibly well-researched.”

In 2013, the Divest and Invest campaign began pushing for total divestment from fossil fuels. With help from other groups, they spoke to the regents on numerous occasions, asking them to consider divesting from fossil fuels. 

President Mark Schlissel created a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee in 2015. Students at the time complained the committee’s recommendations were ignored by the University’s administration.

Webber expressed similar frustrations with the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, created in 2019, as another example of inaction operating under the guise of action.

“(The commission) has no power to do anything and is still not allowed to discuss divestment,” Webber said. 

She said divestment isn’t the only environmental issue facing the University and pointed to a lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor as another issue hampering the push for carbon neutrality. 

Ann Arbor’s rents are notably higher than in other cities, which forces many members of the University community to move out of the city. This in turn leads them to drive more often, increasing emissions. The PCCN’s commuting analysis team mentioned housing policy as one of its focus areas in its spring report.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email that the PCCN looks for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on campus. When asked specifically about fossil fuel investments, Fitzgerald cited the ongoing nature of the review and said the University has “no additional information to share at this time.”

“The PCCN is charged with recommending scalable and transferrable pathways for U-M to reduce its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions,” Fitzgerald wrote. 

Hermann said the fossil fuel freeze came as a direct result of student activism and encouraged students to push for a better University.

“The University is only driven to action after a lot of student work and vision,” Hermann said. “Even though most of us are only on campus for a short time, what we do with that time lays the groundwork for future students.”

Daily Staff Report Dominic Coletti can be reached at dcoletti@umich.edu.


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