Almost a year after the Nominations & Elections Committee held an undergraduate referendum on fossil fuel divestment, Penn is forming an ad hoc committee to further consider the issue.
After last February’s referendum, which passed with 87.8 percent approval from the 33 percent of undergraduate students that voted, Fossil Free Penn submitted a proposal that has been approved by the University Council Steering Committee for further deliberation.
The proposal calls for Penn to remove its investments in the fossil fuel industry and reinvest some of the extricated funds into renewable energy. College senior Jorge Mancilla Uribe believes that divestment is imperative because individual action is simply not enough to combat climate change.
“Political action is needed, but it is blocked by the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “We are not going after the industry’s finances [by divesting], but it does let us go after their reputation because that is what gives their lobby credibility in political circles.”
In order for the University to divest, the next step involves forming an ad hoc committee comprised of students, faculty, staff and alumni whose members will ultimately be selected by Chair of the Board of Trustees, David Cohen.
“They obviously don’t want anyone biased [on the committee] but hopefully they’ll consider someone from Fossil Free Penn considering the fact that we pushed this initiative forward,” College sophomore Michelle Pereira said.
The committee is expected to convene for up to 12 months beginning in March 2016 and is then required to submit a recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who will make the final decision.
Despite the progress in moving forward with the proposal, the process is lengthy and the Trustees’ Guidelines for Divestment establish “extraordinarily high standards” such as the requirement that “the company or companies identified for divestment ... have a significant, clear and undeniable nexus to the moral evil.”
Moreover, the University states that divestment should only be approved after all other options are found to be unsatisfactory.
In spite of this strict criterion, members of Fossil Free Penn are confident that their campaign fulfills these requirements.
“This is the most warranted divestment campaign because climate change affects every single person in the world,” College freshman Zach Rissman said, referencing Penn’s past campaigns to divest from the tobacco industry and from South Africa during apartheid.
However, Rissman is not completely confident that the committee will, at this time, recommend divestment to the Trustees. “Even though a lot of studies show that divesting from fossil fuels does not negatively impact an investment portfolio, there is a stigma surrounding divestment,” he said.
Even at Penn, reaching out to faculty for support was sometimes challenging for advocates of divestment. “Some faculty were afraid of stepping on the wrong toes,” Pereira said.
But Rissman believes that in the end, Penn will do the right thing. “We’re not going to just give up,” he said. “We’ll step back and look at what went wrong and just try again.”
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