The UW System schools seem to take pride in their commitment to sustainability and the well-being of their students, all while their respective foundations invest millions of dollars into the very industries contributing to the climate crisis.

It is undeniable the Earth’s climate is changing — impacts such as extreme weather fluctuations and increased intensity of natural disasters are being seen around the world. The fossil fuel industry is directly causing climate change and polluting our planet on a daily basis. So, how can concerned students, faculty, staff and community members hold the UW System and Foundations socially and environmentally accountable? To start, UW students and faculty can organize for a just divestment from fossil fuels.

Divestment is the opposite of investment. It is the act of removing any financial investments made towards an unethical industry — in this case from the fossil fuel industry.

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The fossil fuel divestment movement started gaining traction just over a decade ago and since then, over 1200 institutions worldwide have divested a collective total of over fourteen trillion dollars. Both the University of California System and the University of Vermont have successfully divested from fossil fuels, alongside several other universities. These universities have taken action to demonstrate their commitment to their students’ futures and environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Although UW students and faculty started a divestment campaign in 2015, student turnover and other factors resulted in a lack of institutional changes. This time will be different because the movement is not confined to Madison.

Currently, the fossil fuel divestment campaign known as the UW Divestment Coalition has representation from eleven of the thirteen four-year UW System schools and a growing group of determined, active members.

Divestment is important because it is a way for communities to rise up against the polluting companies causing harm to their health and livelihoods. Divestment takes funding away from fossil fuel companies, while simultaneously harming the industry’s public reputation.

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There are a range of arguments UWDC presents in favor of divestment. One argument is that divestment is a necessary step toward climate justice. Scientists have high confidence global temperatures will continue to rise up to 10 degrees above pre-industrial times over the next century.

We risk displacing millions of people due to rising sea levels, extreme precipitation, drought and more frequent and intense natural disasters. Not only does divestment benefit the planet and its people, but it is also financially beneficial to the institution in question.

This leads to our next argument — divestment from fossil fuels is financially smart. Numerous studies have shown under current market conditions, the fossil fuel industry is an unstable, declining industry. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the university system the foundations divest and find a more stable, growing industry to invest in.

A just reinvestment is crucial — funds divested from fossil fuels should not be reinvested in other unethical industries. Reinvestment must be ethical, green, community-controlled and/or local.

For the University of Wisconsin System, divestment will require all UW Foundations to cease any new investments in the fossil fuel industry and to sell all existing investments in fossil fuels, specifically those listed in the Carbon Underground Top 200 List. UWDC asks for the support of the UW Board of Regents in the stance the UW Foundations must be transparent in their endowment investments, divest from fossil fuels within three to five years and reinvest in companies promoting a sustainable and equitable future.

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In their first nine months of organizing, UWDC has passed resolutions through seven student governments and has several faculty senate resolutions in progress. Early March, the UW faculty senate passed a resolution by a landslide 149 to 13 vote, urging the UW Foundation to divest.

Although public presentations have been halted by the pandemic, UWDC has been able to do online informational presentations to get the word out about their coalition and mission. They will continue to seek meetings with representatives from the UW Foundations and Board of Regents to gather all the information they need to turn UW divestment into a reality.

To support the movement, follow them on social media (@UWDivestment), sign the petition and spread the word about divestment. UWDC will not stop advocating, educating and applying public pressure until they are successful in holding the universities and foundations accountable. Divestment — for the planet and for the people!

The UW Divestment Coalition is a student-led organization. More information on the UWDC can be accessed here.