Illustration by Ashrita Budharaju

In October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report stating that we have only 32 years left to prevent the most severe effects of global warming.  Even with current pledges to cut CO2 emissions, the report warned that without taking rapid action on a scale with “no documented historic precedent,” a warming of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is inevitable. This would be the “worst case” scenario.

The Paris Climate Accord suggested we limit warming to a two-degree threshold to mitigate this. But the IPCC found that this not go far enough. A warming of 2 degrees will have catastrophic effects: 99 percent of all coral reefs, which are vital to global fisheries and tropical ecosystems, would be devastated; natural disasters like 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, would multiply in intensity and frequency; crop yields would decay and sea rise would create tens of millions of refugees. While some will be equipped with the wealth and resources to endure, the most vulnerable people on our planet — the indigenous, agricultural and coastal-dependent communities, people in the Arctic and Small Island Developing States — will be left to bear the harshest outcomes.

The consequences will be grave, but choosing action and education above complicity will arm us with the tools to abate climate catastrophes. To achieve this, the IPCC report urges us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. It is possible, but “doing so would require unprecedented changes”, said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.
The primary cause of climate change is human activity that releases carbon into the atmosphere, like driving a car, generating electricity or manufacturing goods. We can and should take steps to reduce our individual carbon footprint, but if we are to truly stop 2 degrees of warming, we must confront the root of the problem: the industry itself.
Our governments, universities and other representative bodies continue to unabashedly fund fossil fuels, the military industrial complex, deforestation and animal agriculture — all of which hasten our ascent towards 2 degrees.

UF is no exception.

Dr. Win Phillips, Executive Chief of Staff at UF and member of the Board of Trustees, told Divest UF that about three percent of the university’s $1.92 billion endowment is invested in natural gas alone — that’s a whopping $57.6 million. And that doesn’t include figures from all other sectors of the fossil fuel industry.
Furthermore, UF has direct partnerships with toxic entities like Wells Fargo, UF’s official banking partner, that has openly disregarded indigenous rights by financing gas pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline.

UF also gets its power from Duke Energy, the biggest U.S. power company by generation capacity and the corporation behind the Sabal Trail Pipeline. Duke has been criticized for its manipulative lobbying, pollution caused by malpractice, and its commitment to coal — in fact, Norway’s wealth fund, the largest in the world at nearly $1 trillion, no longer invests in the company for those reasons.

UF will continue to fund fossil fuels unless we — the students, faculty, and staff, as well as citizens in Gainesville — do something about it.

Yet UF hosts a Duke natural gas cogeneration plant on campus. This is despite the fact that GRU offered in August 2016 to provide UF power at a cheaper rate than Duke, which would save the university money and increase its renewable energy portfolio. Wouldn’t the land occupied by the cogeneration plant be better applied toward UF students than an exploitive company?

You’d figure that UF, an institution that boasts about its sustainability program, would have already joined the growing movement of colleges, government and institutions that have divested from the fossil fuel industry. UF should materially support its supposed ideals by selling its assets and severing direct connections to organizations that prioritize profit over climate.

Divestment is often dismissed by critics as a radical and impractical step toward addressing societal conflict, but it’s not a new idea: Divestment from South Africa, as a form of boycott, was a primary mechanism used by the African National Congress that helped bring about the end of apartheid. But while Florida State University and the University of Miami participated in the BDS movement of the eighties, UF chose to support segregation and incarcerate student organizers.

But today, UF has the opportunity to make the morally right choice. UF would be the first school in the SEC to divest, it would join over 1,000 religious institutions, colleges, universities and cities that have already pulled their money from fossil fuels. According to Bill McKibben in the Guardian, these institutions have divested over $8 trillion from the fossil fuel industry.

Given the rate at which we are reaching the IPCC’s worst-case scenario, moderate solutions are no longer solutions. The IPCC report emphasized that if we are to prevent the most devastating effects of global warming, carbon emissions much reach “net zero” by 2050. This means that radical modifications to our existing infrastructure, energy production, agricultural systems, material consumption, and culture are now more practical than not.

As a symbolic gesture, divestment alone will not stop 2 degrees, but it would influence our community’s subsequent dialogue around climate change and instill a cultural urgency into both climate skeptics and climate reductionists across the country. It has the potential to do a lot of good. But the truth is that UF will continue to fund fossil fuels unless we — the students, faculty, and staff, as well as citizens in Gainesville — do something about it. As the possibility of a future with no food, mass human displacement, and intensified natural disasters looms larger, we must regain our collective power and demand the University of Florida Board of Trustees divest UF. •