By Elizabeth Haas, Contributing Writer
Sophomore Maitland Ianiri put it simply when he said, “I don’t support the university investing in climate change.”
Ianiri and other UNH students from the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) are planning more than just a celebration for Global Divestment Day this Friday, Feb. 13. They will be officially reopening their campaign to have UNH completely divest from fossil fuels.
Divestment is choosing to stop investing in companies that do not align with campaign’s values and morals. According to Giselle Hart, a leader in the SEAC divestment campaign, UNH currently has over $3 million of its endowment invested in fossil fuel extraction, and SEAC wants to see those funds invested in environmentally friendly companies instead.
“It’s absolutely irrational for our school to claim sustainability as a core value but then put our dollars into fundamentally unsustainable companies,” said Giselle Hart, a leader in the SEAC divestment campaign. “Right now, our school is funding companies that are directly contributing to climate change, committing human rights violations through the extraction process, and harming our beautiful planet. The logic of divestment is simple: if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
SEAC is hosting a teach-in at 11 a.m. on Friday in MUB 156 where students can learn more about divestment and UNH’s endowment, ask questions and make signs to show their support.
At noon, students will gather at the MUB circle and march to Thompson Hall Lawn to show their concern about divestment at UNH with a rally, officially reopening the campaign.
By Friday, SEAC is striving to have 500 petition signatures to deliver to the President’s Office after the rally. Their goal is no half-signed petition sheets, and they plan to be be present at Dimond Library and the MUB during common hour on Thursday to spread awareness and gather support.
At last Thursday’s SEAC meeting, sophomore Griffin Sinclair-Wingate explained that the campaign is promoting three main points stating, “it is irresponsible to invest in fossil fuels if sustainability is one of our core values. Why invest in climate change? And how [SEAC is] really excited to work with the administration and for the university’s response.”
Hart and three other SEAC students already have delivered a letter and signed a petition to President Huddleston’s office on Jan. 30, asking the president to reconsider divestment at UNH. However, Hart sees Friday as the true campaign opening and an import way for students to show their support and interest in divestment.
Two years ago UNH was one of the first universities in the country to begin a campaign for fossil fuel divestment after the international campaign launched in 2012.
Members of SEAC gathered over 1,000 petitions signatures and delivered them President Huddleston’s office in November 2012. The university decided not to divest and instead proposed a compromise: creating an environmental social governance portfolio that donors have the option of contributing funds to.
Environmental, social and governance, or ESG, portfolios are comprised of companies that made sustainability a major part of their business model.
“We are proud of the step we have taken to give donors an ESG investing option,” said Deborah Dutton, the vice president for advancement and president of the UNH Foundation.
The ESG portfolio already has one donor, and Dutton says that more donors have expressed interest in donating as well. The UNH Foundation does not have plans to move additional funds from its other investments into the portfolio, but it is sharing information about the option to interested donors and expects it will grow over time.
“We look forward to continuing to talk with SEAC about additional ways to address the topic while balancing the needs and wishes of our donors,” Dutton said, speaking on behalf of the Office of the President and the UNH Foundation. “We also appreciate the focus and emphasis the SEAC students have brought to the topic.”
The original SEAC campaign ended after several of the students graduated in spring 2013 and the movement became too large for the remaining leadership.
“Just because the leaders of the first campaign graduated doesn’t mean this issue is going away,” Hart said. She is intentionally modeling Friday’s rally and second delivery of petitions after the 2012 campaign.
According to Gianna Tempera, a sophomore SEAC member, since 2012, 181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals have divested more than $50 billion. The University of Maine system was the most recent university to participate in the movement, officially pledging to divest from coal in January, which made them the first land-grant university to partially divest from fossil fuels. If UNH pledges to divest from fossil fuels completely, it would be the first land-grant university to do so.
“Why shouldn’t your investments follow your values?” said UNH professor of climatology and glaciology Cameron Wake. He points out that investing in fossil fuels is risky with environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill and the recent 50 percent drop in the price of oil decreasing its investment returns.
Research, such as that conducted by UNH students from Net Impact in 2012, has shown that investing in ESG portfolios have brought equal or better returns financially.
Wake understands that divestment takes a transition period while new ESG portfolios are researched, and UNH would not sell all of its fossil fuel investments immediately.
However, he does believe that the university should start this transition immediately.
“We should have done it two years ago,” Wake said.
Professor Clayton Mitchell views divestment as a blended question of ethics and business, and UNH has many alternate investment options, including wind and solar clean energy companies.
Mitchell explained that while these newer sustainable companies are associated with greater risk, as the technologies, for example solar energy, are new, they also have a greater future growth potential because they are not a finite resource like fossil fuels.
“It all boils down to the personal goals of the community and the institution who must represent the community,” he said. “If that community unifies in a voice that is both solid in its ethics toward climate change and business objectives to find alternative return options, divestment is a no-brainer.”
The Sustainability Institute supports the ethics behind divestment but is still in the process of gathering more information from SEAC and the administration before determining a possible plan of action.
Jackie Cullen, the Institute’s communications & information coordinator, said divestment and ESG portfolios are about more than just fossil fuels.
“You start to look at these companies in all these funds, and there are a lot of companies that are doing things that might be against your morals,” she said, explaining that some companies look good on the surface, but underneath are using slave labor.
She also understands the fear of investing in new technologies like solar, especially because UNH has no previous investment history with such companies from which to base new investing decisions.
“Divestment has the potential to change the status quo of how we operate,” Cullen said. “But it is also threatening how we’ve done business.”
“I’m really excited to see UNH join in the global movement to make investments that better support the future of students and of the world,” Tempera said. “Fossil fuel extraction is simply an unsustainable practice, and I don’t believe that UNH should be investing in a leading cause of climate change.”