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Our Turn: UVM fossil fuel divestment

On Tuesday, July 14, the board of trustees voted unanimously to divest the University of Vermont’s (UVM) endowment from all direct fossil fuel investments. As the primary organization coordinating the recent resurgence of divestment at UVM, we (Organize UVM) feel it incumbent on us to comment about what this victory means, and recognize those who fought for it over the years. In short, a decade of student activism, and a decade of support from faculty and staff echoing throughout these hallowed halls, divested this university.

In the spring of 2019, when our club began investigating fossil fuel divestment, we contacted previous campus organizers who had called for divestment in prior years. A decade ago, the movement gained substantial momentum with strong support from students, faculty and staff. However, the movement faltered as the student leaders began graduating (a challenging reality of student organizing). In the years since, new student leaders picked up the mantle where it was dropped; the movement persisted to some degree.

Periodically, students would lead protests at the tri-annual trustee meetings. Organizers would make their case to the board of trustees through speeches, proposals and displays of concern through protests, but there was no action. The exception was in 2016 when students organized as the “Student Climate Culture” brought a proposal to divest from coal to the Trustee Investment Subcommittee via the university’s Socially Responsible Investment Committee. In response, the board released a statement that the endowment contained no investments in coal; but even if there were, they would not divest. Essentially, the stance at that time was divestment was not part of the board’s plans for the endowment.

Over the years, energy markets shifted — fossil fuels became a fiscally irresponsible investment, and renewable energy became a more viable alternative. In January, Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock (one of the largest global asset managers), released a letter acknowledging the necessary shift towards sustainable investing. Numerous other institutions, entities and even governments acknowledged this as they divested their trillions of dollars. Universities that divested affirmed the decades of science they (and UVM) produced on climate change.

When we, as Organize UVM, began pushing for divestment, the student body joined us as they had before. In just six weeks, we gathered over 2,000 signatures from UVM affiliates in anticipation of the October 2019 board meeting. After a strong and professional showing by countless individuals attending the early morning meeting, momentum skyrocketed. After the board meeting, divestment resolutions passed the student and faculty Senates as they had in prior efforts.

At the January 2020 board meeting, we doubled attendance as multiple environmental organizations decried the board’s willingness to compliment our professionalism while neglecting to address our concerns or engage in dialogue. Sunrise Movement Burlington held their own demonstration in which they briefly interrupted the board meeting by directly addressing trustees’ inaction and conflicts of interest in fossil fuels.

Our plan then was to interview prospective students about divestment on Accepted Students Day. Once we sent out an email asking folks to help with this project, leaders in Organize UVM were asked to meet with an administrator who asked us not to do this event, promising action and a meeting with the president of UVM, stating that we can do an action “any other day, but not on Accepted Students Day.” We agreed to defer on the project.

Then, the board of trustees formed the Sustainability Work Group (SWG). The SWG reached out for input from the UVM community, although we still wished there had been more dialogue between them and us. Last week, the work group’s divestment resolution passed in the SWG, then in the full board. The decade of struggle became triumph. It is a substantial milestone for the board to divest its direct investments in fossil fuel, according to the Cynic, $27 million. A remaining challenge is to identify ways to divest from fossil fuels in commingled funds.

UVM is not alone in this respect; most universities that are divested from fossil fuel companies are still invested in similar commingled funds. We are encouraged the Sustainability Work group recommended the board create a “campaign with its commingled fund managers requesting that they factor the financial risks of climate change into their investment decision-making process and share their framework for doing so with UVM.” This is a critical step, and we’re eager to support and review future board action in this regard.

Despite the board’s inaction on divestment in prior years, we are ecstatic that this year they responded meaningfully to calls for change from student activists and UVM community members and their persistent organizing. We are grateful for assistance from several board members this past year and know others agreed with us at the outset of our work last year, it was time for divestment. In the end, the whole board did the right thing, and we particularly appreciate the three-year timeline they have established for divestment of direct investments in fossil fuels. We hope to work together to take additional steps towards environmental stewardship. This movement is one of persistence and strength.

All of us won last week. This victory shows that yes, we can win speaking out for what’s right. To other universities — keep fighting, and hold your trustees to the three-year deadline our trustees chose — the bar has been set. And to our friends who worked with us for this victory, from the first students to speak out a decade ago to the last petition signature, never forget the insurmountable power we have when we act together — it is dazzling and spectacular and insurmountable. In this fight against climate change, we need to give everything we’ve got. Speaking for ourselves, we will continue to organize for positive change. Savor this victory, and when the champagne bubbles have all popped, we’ll see you out there once again.

Organize UVM is the student group advocating for fossil fuel divestment.

Walz: Winning formula

I like jigsaw puzzles. By forcing you to figure out how shapes and images fit together, they give the brain good exercise. It’s a perfect thing to do on a rainy day, not to mention in an age of social distancing.

My current work in progress is a collection of World War II posters. There are the classics we all know. Rosie the Riveter flexes her bicep. A stern Uncle Sam points a finger directly at you. Slogans along the lines of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” appear more than once.

There are a few new to me. “Fish is a Fighting Food” is wonderfully alliterative and surprisingly catchy. There’s another with an image of an enemy plane going down in flames with the caption “Your Scrap Brought It Down.” That’s part of the conservation and rationing messages that show up over and over again.

They are all words and images the World War II generation lived by. Young men and women who grew up during the Great Depression came of age just in time to fight a global war. It is sobering to think of the deprivations they lived with and the sacrifices they made. They tackled enormous problems head-on with a conviction they would solve them.

In the beginning, victory was by no means a sure thing. When the German 6th Army surrendered in Stalingrad in February 1943, it was clear Germany could not win the war. Despite the obvious outcome, the fighting was far from over. Germany did not capitulate until May 1945; Japan signed its surrender in September. All the while, America saved scraps, rationed essentials, and devoted its young men and women to the war effort.

My parents had their roles. My father volunteered and served in the Army Air Corps, my mother worked for a while in the Pentagon. Five of my six uncles served in the military. One was briefly captured by the Germans in North Africa, but they all survived. Many families were not so fortunate.

The word “together” shows up on many of these posters and that highlights a theme underlying them all. Victory lay in each person doing his/her part, looking out for one another, and in working together for a common cause.

Today, instead of a global war, we face a global pandemic, economic downturn and social turmoil on a scale last seen over 50 years ago. As we remember the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we should also remember the spirit of that generation and apply it again.

It’s actually not much of a puzzle what the winning formula is.

Tommy Walz lives in Barre.

Right direction

Across the Northeast, the numbers would suggest we are doing something right.

In fact, an article appearing in The New York Times this week suggests that the region stands “in sharp contrast with the rest of the nation.”

“Along the East Coast, from Delaware through Maine, new case reports remain well below their April peak. As of Wednesday, six of the country’s 11 states with flat or falling case levels are in that Northeastern corridor.”

Vermont reported has seen 1,366 cases since the pandemic began. No new deaths have been reported for more than a month. The total number of people who have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, is 56. And, so far, a total of 1,152 people have recovered.

One of the article’s sources, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, was quoted as saying the region is “acting like Europe.”

According to the Times article, “Like Europe, the Northeast suffered a devastating wave of illnesses and deaths in March and April, and state leaders responded, after some hesitation, with aggressive lockdowns and big investments in testing and tracing efforts. Residents have largely followed rules and been surprisingly supportive of tough measures, even at the cost of economic pain.”

That is high praise, considering that it is also true that the Northeast remains the corner of America that has suffered most from the virus.

According to the Times, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have reported the country’s most deaths per capita over the course of the pandemic, with more than 61,000 combined.

It also notes that voters in the Northeast “are prepared to tolerate prolonged economic pain in order to stop the spread of the virus. Governors from the states that were hit early in the pandemic have sustained the highest approval ratings in the country.”

Certainly here, Gov. Phil Scott and his team have received high praise for the crisis-management approach to dealing with the pandemic. That is not to say missteps haven't been made along the way — the unemployment fiasco in the early days of the pandemic spring to mind — and this governor is likely to be tested even as early as today if he issues a statewide mandate on wearing masks in public.

All precautions are being taken so that schools can reopen in a matter of weeks, and the economy has a chance to restart.

But the fragility of the bubble in which Vermont (and the Northeast) currently enjoys is tenuous at best, when there are record numbers of new cases and deaths in the other corners of the nation.

While we continue to do the right thing, it is impossible to have all contingencies at the ready.

Fortunately, Vermont is, as they say, a small town. We are able to pivot and adapt, and with a majority of the citizens being mindful and careful, we can keep this trajectory.

Interestingly, the Times piece points out another variable: tradition.

“The crisis has drawn out key regional differences in how Americans view the role of government in their lives, said Wendy J. Schiller, chairwoman of the political science department at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The Northeast, she said, with its 400-year tradition of localized, participatory government, has been less affected by decades of antigovernment rhetoric,” it stated.

“In New England and the Northeast, it is easier to say, ‘Let’s put on a mask and lock down, we’re all in this together, we know each other,’” Schiller was quoted in the Times as saying. “It’s this reservoir of belief that the government exists to be good.”

It is true, and it speaks to our rurality and the quality of life that we enjoy. We call each other out. We are sufficiently preachy. And we often do think of our neighbors as easily we do our families and friends.

But this moment very well could be providing a false sense of security.

Maine Gov. Jane Mills was also quoted in the Times article Maine is seeing a similar dip in new cases and deaths. “The last few weeks, in particular, have felt good, but we’re not out of the woods,” she said. She is correct. The Times spells out what’s next: “the economic impact of the spring shutdowns ripples outward, unemployment benefits expire and an expected flood of evictions begins.” And dare we say it, winter.

Be strong, Vermont. Stay the course.