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Alternative activism: SU, ESF groups advocate for schools to stop investing in fossil fuels

Spencer Bodian | Staff Photographer

(FROM LEFT) Ross Mazur and Connor Deroin speak with other students to discuss the best ways to urge SUNY-ESF and SU to stop investing in fossil fuels.

To many, carbon-based energy feeds this country, pumping through the land through a network of pipeline veins. It brings with it high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and causing detrimental environmental effects.

But students at both Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are saying, “No more.” They’ve decided to tackle the issue of climate change by severing ties with the fossil fuel industry— the heart of the beast.

Students from SU and ESF have asked their respective universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Activists want the university to abstain from any new investments in fossil fuels and to set a plan in motion to become completely divested in five years.

SU currently has $50 million invested in the energy sector, comprising about 5 percent of its endowment, said Ben Kuebrich, a doctoral student in SU’s composition and cultural rhetoric program.

ESF has $1.9 million invested in the energy sector, said Mike Smith, a junior chemistry major at ESF.

“What the divestment movement does is target the fossil fuel industry, which is spending its money and corrupting our system,” Kuebrich said.

Asking the universities to pull funding from fossil fuel companies sends a social message, said Chiara Klein, who is involved in the SU divestment group.

Those involved modeled the campaign after a movement from the 1980s, in which students across the country demanded that their universities divest from South Africa in protest of apartheid.

“It’s very much akin to stirring up trouble in a good way,” said Klein, a sophomore English and textual studies major.

The idea sparked on campus after renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben spoke last fall as a part of the University Lectures series. In his lecture, he urged members of the SU community to take action against climate change by standing up to the fossil fuel industry.

Students at SU and ESF, along with others from more than 250 colleges and universities across the country, have answered his call to action.

“The most important component of the divestment campaign is the argument that if you’re going to take sustainability seriously on your campus, you extend that focus beyond the buildings to the portfolio,” McKibben said in an email.

SU officials have shown an interest in working with the students pushing for divestment. ESF, however, has not.

“The initial response from President Murphy was dismissive in nature,” said Smith, the junior chemistry major.

Officials at SU, on the other hand, have remained open to discussion. The administration regards climate change as a serious issue, said Eric Spina, vice chancellor and provost. He envisions conversations about divestment will continue into the next year.

Although the university has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and moving toward carbon neutrality, it must evaluate its investment portfolio before coming to a decision, said Sherburne Abbott, vice president for sustainability initiatives.

Detangling SU’s endowments from the fossil fuel industry is difficult, and the Board of Trustees has an obligation to maintain the institution’s financial health, she said.

Despite these challenges, Abbott said she admires the students’ determination to push the movement forward.

“There’s a lot to be gained by mobilizing students across the country toward an organized effort around climate change,” she said. “Divestment seems to be the main push.”

The campaign serves as a central organization for student climate activists, said Smith. It has allowed the environmental movement to shift from individual activism to more of a group effort, uniting students around a collective cause and providing a starting point for a new generation of climate activists, he said.

“It takes everyone, plus more, to really go against this thing,” he said.

Students are not the only ones working toward divestment. A group of approximately 10 faculty members have also joined the cause. Bob Wilson, an associate professor of geography at SU, said a part of the group’s mission is to support the students, something McKibben encouraged in his October lecture.

“He said students shouldn’t have to be on their own, they should have support from their elders,” Wilson said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

But the students need more than just faculty to back them — they must rally their peers, as well. To indicate the importance of the issue, they need to get more of the SU community involved, said Spina.

The divestment campaign currently has a core of about 20 students, although its members have collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of divestment, said Kuebrich, the SU doctoral student.

Working beyond the stereotypes of an environmental cause has been challenging. People tend to associate environmental activism with recycling bins and composting, so students have to work to overcome that stigma, said Klein, SU divestment group member.

“Our cohesiveness doesn’t come from the fact that we’re hippies,” she said. “So many different types of people can find something to relate to in terms of what we’re doing.”

The group is now attempting to reach beyond its environmentally friendly circle by asking the community to come together.

Members want to make it clear that as the generation inheriting this planet, they will not tolerate the practices that continue to contribute to its degradation, Klein said.

The group must now prove to the SU administration that it is both the morally and financially responsible decision. Members of the movement are prepared for a long debate, but their desire to relinquish the power of the fossil fuel industry remains undeterred.

“They picked a fight with us, with the future. We’re simply pushing back as hard as we can,” Smith said. “We’re students on campus. This is where our power lies.”

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