Digging Deeper: Lessons From the UC Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign



Berkeley — Saturated in coffee and cardboard pizza and with eyes glazed over, the 80 or so student delegates of the Graduate Assembly of the University of California, Berkeley (GA) neared the end of their marathon monthly meeting. It was 9 P.M., an hour past schedule, when they came to democratic consensus on an acceptable food budget for a GA social, thereby bringing them to the final agenda item – Resolution 1311B, “Divesting the University Investments from the Fossil Fuel Industry.”

I gathered my notes and gave Brett Fleischman – Senior Analyst at 350.org – an elbow jab, shaking him out of his email-writing flurry. As the two of us walked up to the front of the large, dimly lit hall with high, arched wooden ceilings and plugged in our PowerPoint presentation, the GA chair introduced the resolution — up for a vote for the second time in two months. The graduate student delegates perked up for what turned out to be a spirited debate on the utility and implications of divesting from fossil fuels.

Bringing a resolution to the GA, my first time navigating student government, was an invaluable experience that deepened my understanding of and commitment to the theory of change behind fossil fuel divestment. What I, and the GA Environmental Sustainability Committee members who sponsored the bill, assumed would unfold as a smooth and painless show of support, turned out to be a lengthy process that revealed the more conservative nature of some of Berkeley’s graduate student community. The resolution went up for a vote back in December, and was tabled because of delegates’ concerns around the potential implications of divestment for the university’s endowment returns and, closer to home for the graduate students, research funding from fossil fuel companies.

Over the next two months, I was fielding emails and phone calls from and meeting with concerned graduate students wanting to discuss what divestment could mean for their department’s fossil fuel industry ties. Over coffee with one Chemical Engineering PhD student, I learned that, in principle, she supports divestment and the need to take a political and symbolic stand against the fossil fuel industry and its business model, but in practice, she is against any action that could potentially harm her or her department’s research funding. Another Chemical Engineering PhD student, employed by BP to research biofuels, was adamantly opposed; in addition to feeling that this resolution equates him and his colleagues with the South African apartheid government, and along with concern about his research funding, he saw a major contradiction in calling for divestment from companies that are funding renewables research.

These vocal and concerned graduate students had a point. Why should they support an action — even one they may agree with in theory — if it puts their academic careers and livelihoods at risk? Moreover, isn’t a fossil fuel divestment campaign that potentially jeopardizes clean energy research funding contradictory and undermining its stated purpose? These were challenging questions that spurred introspection and lively debate within our group, and in so doing, unearthed a much deeper collective understanding of our theory of change.

The first question regarding the implications of fossil fuel divestment — and on a broader scale, of demanding a transition away from fossil fuels – is one the divestment movement as a whole should take seriously and have a well-developed answer to. Because we’re not just talking about academic researchers poised to lose industry-funded grants in the transition away from fossil fuels; we’re talking about the groups and individuals most vulnerable to the massive structural shifts we are calling for: low wage earners, migrant farm workers, refinery workers, coal miners, and the list goes on. We must be diligent in making sure our demands for climate action are matched by an actionable vision for alternatives that put people before corporate profits. At the same time that we are working to dismantle an unsustainable and unjust fossil fueled paradigm, we have to be investing in and building a just and sustainable economy; an economy that is not based on exploitation and externalities, but on productivity and regeneration; an economy that is collectively liberating and that reflects the needs of everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.

I am just at the very beginning of understanding what a just transition is and what it could look like, and am finding big inspiration in campaigns like the Our Power campaign. The process of going beyond a focus on what I am opposed to and digging into what we can build, that to me is the most exciting part of all of this.

The second question is based on faulty logic. While it is true that some fossil fuel companies invest some money in some alternatives, those investments are pittance in comparison to the amount of capital they expend on their bread and butter. In an industry that collectively throws down hundreds of billions of dollars each year exploring for new hydrocarbons, not one company has surpassed three percent of total capital expenditures on renewables. Not much of an argument against divestment there.

But let’s go a bit deeper. The fact that the fossil fuel industry is funding our schools is profoundly problematic. It is no secret that industry-funded academic research is all-too-often dictated by industry agendas. For example, BP invested $500 million dollars in a biofuels research and development hub at UC Berkeley in 2007; it turns out, however, that just under one third of that amount — $150 million — is for “proprietary research,” and that a core part of the project’s research agenda is technology to turn heavy hydrocarbons like Canadian Tar Sands into lighter fuels. Not exactly clean energy research for the public good. The fossil fuel industry is privatizing public education in the name of outsized corporate profits and some greenwashing, while private universities and the industry are already longtime bedfellows; just look at Brown University’s “The Corporation” and you will understand why they won’t divest from coal. Even if fossil fuel companies decided to invest heavily in renewables research and development — an endeavor they have shown no interest in pursuing — do we really want BP and Exxon to own our solar and wind power? A just transition means one that is to a decentralized, democratized, and distributed energy system. It is about taking back our power by taking back our power.

My chats with the graduate students were valuable in reminding me of the importance of listening. Rather than getting up and leaving those conversations frustrated with Berkeley’s graduate students, I took the time to listen to their concerns, so that when the time came to present the case for divestment the second time around, we were able to address, as best we could, the issues they were most concerned about — namely research funding and return on investment. We shared our theory of change and vision for a just transition, and why we think the benefits of investing in that transition outweigh the risks of staying invested in business as usual.

By the time the resolution went to a vote, the coffee was cold, the pizza was stale, and a lively debate was had, full of interruptions and collectively consensed time extensions that took us late into the night. It was democracy at its finest and it ended with an electronic straw poll.

On February 6th, 2014, UC Berkeley’s GA voted YES on fossil fuel divestment, becoming the first graduate student senate of the 10-campus UC system to stand on the right side of history, joining eight undergraduate student senates and the UC Santa Barbara faculty senate.

As the UC Regents begin deliberating over divesting the UC’s $11 billion endowment from fossil fuels via a soon-to-be announced UC Task Force on Sustainable Investing, we will continue pushing not only for the Regents to stand on the right side of history by divesting, but by actively reinvesting in the urgently necessary transition to a clean and just economy.

To learn more about Fossil Free UC visit www.fossilfreeuc.org

Ophir Bruck

Ophir is a fourth-year studying Society and Environment. He is an organizer with the California Student Sustainability Coalition and a member of the Fossil Free UC divestment campaign. When not helping build a grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis, he can be found in the kitchen whipping up world-class hummus.

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  1. April 28, 2014

    […] On February 6, 2014, UC Berkeley’s GA voted to support a resolution calling for the university to sell its shares in fossil fuel companies. We will continue to push the UC Board of Regents, which determines the University’s investments, to divest its $11.2 billion endowment from fossil fuels. The Regents should not only stand on the right side of history by divesting, but actively reinvest any fossil fuel holdings in alternative energy to ensure a clean and just economy. (Read the full essay.) […]

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