Universities around the world are taking steps to curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The University of Richmond ought to follow suit if it hopes to maintain our moral integrity as an academic institution during the climate crisis.
President Crutcher’s letter in UR’s sustainability report sets the current goal for carbon neutrality at 2050, but 2050 is as good as never. If humanity hopes to overcome the grim threat to the environment, attitudes toward energy consumption must change now, and they must change dramatically.
President Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency have already reversed bans on the use of pesticides that are harmful to adolescent brains, but they are now aiming to repeal the Obama-era environmental regulations established in the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule.
We must acknowledge that we are currently faced with the simultaneous realities of climate disruption and governmental ineptitude.
Given the dire situation, UR has a moral duty to divest endowment funds from fossil fuels and to establish a feasible but challenging initiative to achieve carbon-emission neutrality by a reasonable date.
Other universities have already implemented strategies to reduce emissions. The University of Virginia released a “Greenhouse Gas Action Plan” in April, providing a strategic roadmap toward its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below their 2009 levels by 2025. Its leadership also signed on to the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge to reduce building energy use intensity by 20% below the 2010 levels by 2020. Middlebury College impressively achieved a carbon-neutral campus in 2016, mainly through biomass gasification plants and methods of forest preservation. Renewable energy saves Middlebury between one and two million dollars a year.
These projects should not be lauded as exceptional, but rather must become accepted as the new normal.
The size of Richmond’s endowment provides us with an opportunity to set a strong example through our financial decisions. Even if the revenues of fossil-fuel companies are marginally affected, divestment sends a loud message about ethical standards and moral integrity. If Richmond claims to be a place of learning that is dedicated to the future of its students and communities, then it has a moral obligation to cease support for practices that directly threaten the well-being of current and future generations.
The University of California system divested $200 million from coal and oil sands in 2015, and Harvard University announced this past April an ambiguous but encouraging “pause” on investments in coal, oil and gas. Protests have broken out as close to home as University of Mary Washington, where police arrested three students who were part of a group occupying a campus building. This trend can be seen around the world, and divestment has clearly become the trajectory in academia, if for no other reason than common necessity.
The ineptitude of the Trump administration makes this necessity far more pressing, and it is only a matter of time until these sentiments boil over on our own campus.
We can be ahead of the curve. Without protest or uproar, Richmond can assume its role as a moral leader in this era of political and environmental uncertainty. To do this, we must use proactive, rather than reactive, thinking.
Richmond has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2008 levels, installed a 205-kilowatt solar system, and opted to adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement. But if we want to fulfill our moral obligations as a university, and to be a leader in academia, we need to fully reflect our principles in the choices we make.
Divesting university funds from fossil fuels would be a sufficiently proactive strategy to accomplish this goal. In 2015, Richmond’s endowment investments totaled $2.43 billion, $1.6 billion of which was invested in hedge funds, and $486 million of which was invested in private equity funds. The rest was invested in assets like bonds, stocks and real estate.
I call for the Board of Trustees to divest all endowment funds from companies and firms that profit directly from the cultivation of fossil fuels.
I ask the student body to put their voices behind this proposal in order to make it a realistic one.
Contact contributor Jeremy Etelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.