The debate on climate change is over. Last month, scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, said evidence of human-caused climate change is as conclusive as evidence linking smoking and lung cancer. In a report titled “What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change” AAAS explained that, like the consensus among the health community regarding the risks of smoking, “a similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.” The debate now shifts to what can be done.

March 20, our law student organization — Law Students for Responsible Divestment from Fossil Fuels 9 — presented in front of the University’s Board of Regents, and proposed a step in the right direction. In a 20-page detail-filled proposal, we argued that the University should divest its endowment from coal and oil equities and bonds. These investments represent the companies that are the primary drivers of climate change — both because of their emissions and because of their misinformation campaigns.

While there have been other divestment efforts regarding fossil fuels, LSRD’s approach sets us apart. First, we focus on a much smaller subset of investments: just coal and oil equities and bonds. These make up only about 1 percent of the University’s endowment. In contrast, the student-run Divest and Invest campaign (with whom we’ve worked closely and who is co-sponsoring this proposal) is asking the regents for a complete divestment from fossil fuels. This touches on near 10 percent of the endowment. Further, they are asking the University to re-invest that money in “socially, environmentally and economically responsible companies.” While we support its efforts, our proposal is different. We’re talking about substantially less money, taken only from the two primary drivers of climate change, and we are not requesting that the University re-invest their money in any particular way.

Our request is also different from divestment proposals on other campuses. Probably the most public campaign is the one at Harvard. They’re asking for divestment from direct and indirect holdings from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. We, on the other hand, are only discussing direct investments, and we’re only discussing coal and oil, not natural gas.

But most importantly, our proposal is unique from other divestment campaigns because it is based on the precedents established from past successful divestment efforts at the University, which was outlined in a directive by the University’s Chief Financial Officer. That, in large part, is why our “ask” is so narrowly tailored — to ensure that we meet this precedent.

Of note, the only times the University has chosen to divest from specific companies were in 1978 when it divested from companies supporting apartheid, and, perhaps not coincidentally, in 2000 when it divested from tobacco companies.

In our proposal, we explain that there is a clear, three-step approach for divestment efforts: 1) The concern to be explored (climate change) must express the broadly and consistently held position of the campus community over time; 2) There must be reason to believe that the behavior or action in question may be antithetical to the core mission and values of the University; and 3) There must be reason to believe that the organization, industry or entity to be singled out (coal and oil industries) may be uniquely responsible for the problems identified. We’re confident that the investments in coal and oil meet these standards.

First, there is a clear consensus on campus that climate change exists and that it poses real threats. Some examples are the administration’s commitment to reducing University carbon emissions 25 percent by 2025, the educational pursuits of the University’s professors and students and the literally hundreds of student initiatives dedicated to sustainability and combating climate change.

Second, the actions of the coal and oil industries are antithetical to the University’s core mission and values. As University President Mary Sue Coleman said in a 2011 address, “Sustainability defines the University of Michigan.” A perpetual reliance on coal and oil does not align with this definition.

Beyond being antithetical to the University’s core value of sustainability, the coal and oil industries’ actions mock the University’s commitment to academic integrity. These two industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying efforts to thwart meaningful legislative solutions on climate change, and to create dubiously named organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition to undermine the scientific consensus on this topic. LSRD believes, as the tobacco divestment committee did, that “the brazen dishonesty of (these industries) for so many years about a matter of such enormous public-health significance is … unquestionably antithetical to the core missions of the University.” Investment in these industries simply cannot be squared with a University’s commitment to higher education.

Lastly, the actions of the coal and oil industries make them uniquely responsible for climate change. First, of all the CO2 ever emitted by burning fossil fuels, a full 83 percent comes from just coal and oil. While that is in part because of a long-standing dependence on these products, coal and oil also emit far more CO2 per unit of energy created than other available fossil fuels, such as natural gas (82 percent and 40 percent more, respectively), and infinitely more than renewable energy resources. In short, coal and oil have been, and will continue to be, the primary drivers of climate change.

LSRD recognizes that the endowment should not be used primarily as a political tool. But, as the University itself has recognized, sometimes a set of investments involves “such significant social or moral implications … that normal investment practices should be altered.” The coal and oil industries — as the primary drivers of climate change and the misinformation campaigns that have paralyzed steps to counteract it — are investments that meet this standard.

LSRD realizes that divestment is just one step in the much larger fight to combat climate change. That being said, regardless of how large an effect divestment may have, we believe there is a value in being true to your values, and currently, the University is not living up to its own.

This article was written by members of the Law Students for Responsible Divestment from Fossil Fuels.

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