As CU Hosts Global Climate Summit, Students Renew Call for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Helena Pliszka (left) and Fiona Nugent are part of the effort to get CU off fossil fuels.
Helena Pliszka (left) and Fiona Nugent are part of the effort to get CU off fossil fuels. Fossil Free CU
“We're hosting this big climate summit,” says Huck Rees, a master's student in the geography department at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We have all these departments that do climate research, yet we still have fossil fuel investments. A lot of other prestigious and large university systems have already divested, so there's a reputation issue there.”

The time is right to revive the fight to make the university divest from fossil fuels, he says, because CU is partnering with the United Nations on the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit that starts today, December 1, and runs through December 4. Students are planning a march on December 2 to urge CU to divest.

The divestment movement calls for universities to stop investing in fossil fuel-related companies as part of their endowment, and instead invest in the just-energy transition and socially responsible companies. CU students had unsuccessfully pushed for divestment in efforts stretching from 2013 to 2017. Now a new group of CU students, joined by supportive faculty, alumni and staff members, are requesting that the university divest its treasury pool, retirement funds and endowments.

Before coming to CU, Rees was an earth scientist studying climate adaptation; a longtime lover of the outdoors, he worked in flood-risk consulting to quantify the economic and human costs of natural disasters. But before long, Rees says he realized that just studying the climate wasn’t enough: He needed to take action.

“As a scientist, we work a lot on telling people what we need to do, but it's very rare that you get an opportunity to actually influence policy or decisions that are made and actions that we take,” he notes.”It’s important as a citizen scientist to be involved in creating action and getting things done, because it just makes it a lot more fulfilling, and it makes my job seem a little more pertinent.”

Concerned that his research wasn’t making a difference, he signed up to volunteer with 350 Sacramento, a climate organization. When he moved to Boulder, he switched to 350 Colorado, the local branch of the same group. That’s where he learned about Fossil Free CU, the re-energized student club pushing for divestment, and joined the effort.

Brigid Mark, a CU student whom Rees describes as the heart and soul of the project, had been organizing since the start of the fall semester, building to the December 2 demonstration with an open letter to the university, a petition pushing divestment, and gatherings to attract other volunteers.

Fossil Free CU estimates that about 5 percent of the university’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels. In September, the university said that its endowments were valued at $1.85 billion.

Morally, the university shouldn't continue to use any of its money to support the proliferation of fossil fuels, according to Fossil Free CU. And financially, it shouldn't either, the group says: CU continually showcases its environmental research and efforts as a positive while profiting off an industry that hurts the planet. But those who are drawn to the school for its green profile could be dissuaded if it falls behind its peers on divestment. In 2021, Harvard University announced that it would divest; in 2020, the University of California completed its divestment. Those examples show that schools of CU’s size can divest successfully without losing prestige, Rees says.

Fossil Free CU first surfaced nearly ten years ago, gathering signatures and hosting protests to push divestment, and eventually presenting its case to the University of Colorado Board of Regents, which rejected the idea in 2015. The campaign persisted, but it faced extreme opposition. When failed 2020 gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl ran for regent in 2016, her campaign was heavily anti-divestment. In 2017, Fossil Free CU announced that it was disbanding.

With Ganahl's term ending next year, students believe the regents may be more receptive to divestment now, and Fossil Free CU has been revived. The climate summit gives the group a chance to point out the university’s hypocrisy in front of a global audience.

David Paradis, a senior instructor in the history department, remembers the last time Fossil Fuel CU was active on campus and says he's glad to see it return. He presented at a Boulder Faculty Assembly meeting this past April where faculty passed a measure calling on CU system administrators to create a strategy to divest and reinvest in a just-energy transition by 2027 at the latest.

Tony Vu, CU system treasurer and chief investment officer, was at that meeting and discussed CU adopting practices from Principles for Responsible Investment, a U.N. organization increasing responsible investment by factoring in environmental, social and governance concerns in investment decisions. At the time, Vu indicated that the regents were supportive of the move.

Despite faculty urging, the university didn’t commit to divestment. But students have continued their campaign this fall.

“I'm so glad to see them engaged on such a level, because the people who are in charge and making the decisions are often not seeing the future from the perspective of young people,” Paradis says. “It's important for them to keep that in a clearer perspective, that they need to listen to the young people. They're the ones who are going to have to live with the effects of climate change.”

CU Alum Scott King founded Mission Zero, a company that funds and supports students working on climate action, because his anxiety over the state of the world became too strong for him not to take action, he says. His youngest son just graduated from college, so he’s well aware of the issues that young people face.

“The more we can educate them and empower them to understand the climate challenge, understand solutions to it, the better able they're going to be to deal with it,” he says. “For me, it's very personal. I care deeply about that generation. It's my kids…. It's their future that they're having to fight for, and I feel like it's my generation's responsibility to support them in that fight.”

At noon on December 2, students will take that fight to the administration, rallying at the UMC Courtyard before delivering their petition.

“The word I want to emphasize is courage,” says Paradis, who'll be speaking at the rally. “It takes courage to make change happen, and the students are being courageous. I hope they'll encourage the administrators to be courageous.”

And if those administrators don't take action?

“We're still learning lessons from the old campaign,” Rees says. ”If this one doesn't work out, if we don't get all of our demands met, then I don't think it's a failure. It’'ll just be another attempt in a long line of attempts that will eventually pay off.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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