Opinion | Counterpoint: Divestment is nonnegotiable

By Paige Lawler, Assistant Opinions Editor

This column is part of a point-counterpoint series. Read the point here.

Chances are, if you’ve been on Pitt’s campus since Friday, Feb. 21 — or if you’ve read any recent articles by The Pitt News — you’ve heard about the occupation of the Cathedral of Learning.

This occupation is being carried out by the members of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, a group formed in hopes of persuading Pitt to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The occupation of the Cathedral is the group’s most recent — and most intense — protest to date. Members have been in the Cathedral commons area for about a week and a half, with no plans of leaving until Pitt fully commits to divestment.

While FFPC’s protest has not yet caused the University to divest, it is important in the sense that it shows an interest in divestment from fossil fuels. It is absolutely necessary and urgent that Pitt takes serious, meaningful action toward divestment in order to combat climate change and continue to strive for a sustainable future.

According to the Paradise Papers, a document from 2016 containing information about universities’ fossil fuel investments, about one third of Pitt’s endowment — then amounting to $3.5 billion — was directly invested, and about $26 million of that amount was invested in fossil fuels. Pitt’s endowment has since increased to $4.3 billion, though the public currently does not know how much of this is invested in fossil fuels or otherwise.

The fact that we do not know how the endowment is being used is concerning enough on its own, but what is perhaps more concerning is that a significant amount of Pitt’s endowment is likely still invested in the fossil fuel industry. For a university with a prominent environmental science/studies program, as well as an entire administrative department that is devoted to sustainability, to invest funds in the fossil fuel industry seems counterintuitive.

For one thing, supporting fossil fuel companies means contributing to and supporting the industry that is one of the top emitters of greenhouse gasses. According to the EPA, 60% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 came from processes related to fossil fuels, such as transportation, industry and production of electricity and heat. This is not to mention the 10% of emissions that come from processes that are related to fossil fuel production, including fuel extraction, refining, processing and transportation.

Fossil fuels are undeniably a nonrenewable resource, meaning that at some point in the future, Pitt will have no choice but to divest. Some estimate that, at our current rate of consumption, we may deplete our crude oil reserves as soon as 2052. This makes divestment ultimately inevitable, so why not commit now?

It could be argued that it is financially risky to divest from fossil fuels. However, this argument simply isn’t accurate — in fact, the opposite is true. With the rise of renewable energy sources and the increased awareness of the harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry, investing in fossil fuel companies does not make as much financial sense as it did in years past.

“If you take an honest look at the data, the sector has underperformed in the stock market for a decade and continues to perform poorly,” said Kathy Hipple, a financial analyst for the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

It can also be argued that divestment would do little to curb global dependence on fossil fuels, and I will admit that divesting will not immediately decrease the demand for fossil fuels. However, divestment would effectively demonstrate the intent to move away from fossil fuels, as well as showing that Pitt, as an organization, does not support the industry.

This is an opportunity for Pitt to be a front-runner among American universities, as schools in our country seem generally reluctant to divest — among the few universities in America committed to full divestment are the University of California and Georgetown University.

The fact that so few American universities are committed to divestment demonstrates yet another area of environmental issues where the United States lags behind other countries. As of January of this year, more than half of universities in the United Kingdom are committed to total divestment from fossil fuel companies. Many of these universities first committed to divestment as early as 2014, with Glasgow University being the first to fully commit. This puts Pitt, as well as other American universities that hesitate to divest, way behind the curve.

An additional benefit of divesting from fossil fuels involves the ethics of the climate crisis. Given the current critical state of our climate emergency, it is becoming increasingly urgent that the world decreases its dependence on and use of fossil fuels. Sea levels continue to rise at a rate of an eighth of an inch every year due to increased global temperatures and an increase of heat absorbed by the oceans, causing the water within them to expand and, in turn, raise sea levels.

The cause of these increased global temperatures? You guessed it — carbon dioxide emissions from processes related to fossil fuels. Divesting illustrates the intent to move away from unsustainable energy sources, as well as the intent to be proactive in solving the climate crisis — or at least not to be complicit in it by continuing to feed money to fossil fuel companies.

The members of FFPC demonstrate the kind of proactivity that is necessary in the fight against climate change, and their push for divestment would ultimately lead to a positive outcome for both Pitt and the world. The size of FFPC’s group does nothing to invalidate its motives or goal — it doesn’t matter how many or how few people the coalition has on their side. What matters is that members are attempting to create positive changes by holding the University accountable for its actions.

Until Pitt commits to full divestment from fossil fuels, it cannot continue to promote its seemingly sustainable agenda, and it cannot brag about committing to carbon neutrality by 2037. Pursuing a carbon-neutral footprint means nothing if the University is still siphoning money into the fossil fuel industry.

Paige Lawler writes primarily about environmental policy and politics. Write to her at [email protected]