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Fossil Free Penn members held a banner and gravestones with facts about the impacts of climate change outside of Van Pelt Library in Feb. 2020. Credit: Alisha Agarwal

Students representing climate activism groups took to Wednesday's University Council Open Forum to demand that Penn fully divest from fossil fuels and create more opportunities for climate change education. 

Eight of the 15 topics at Wednesday's forum covered a wide range of climate-related demands, including mitigating the climate risk for Philadelphians and supporting issues of race and the environment. Additional topics covered mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the West Philadelphia community and extending funding for graduate students for one year.

The University Council holds annual open forums for members of the Penn community to raise policy concerns to administrators. The council membership includes President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett, as well as faculty and undergraduate and graduate students.

Seven undergraduates represented the Student Sustainability Association at Penn, the umbrella group for student climate organizations, at the forum. SSAP members presented a three-step plan to make Penn more sustainable, including enhancing climate education, implementing a required climate course, and divesting completely from fossil fuels.

College sophomore and SSAP member Camila Irabien, an international student from Honduras, told the University Council that Penn can better support the international student population by offering more robust climate education.

“I would love to take a course to learn more about how climate change affects different ethnicities and races, but there aren’t any. How is that possible at the world's leading research institution? The only reason I know about how I — a Honduran — should be a leading advocate in climate action is through student groups like SSAP,” Irabien said.  

College senior and SSAP member Kristen Ukeomah criticized the University for continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry, noting that the impacts of climate change will disproportionately harm communities of color. She added that Penn's recent commitment to donate $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia over 10 years in order to address environmental hazards is irreconcilable with its investment in fossil fuels. 

“The moral implications of continuing to be complacent in fossil fuel investments parallels the generations of complacency that have led to our current world of injustice. Penn’s $100 million commitment to supporting the West [Philadelphia] community is wholly inconsistent with its continued funding of the racist fossil fuel industry,” Ukeomah, who also serves as president of the Black Student League, said.

Penn announced its donation to local schools in November following years of demands to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes to the city. Students and professors welcomed the gift but criticized it for its short timeframe, calling on the University to donate more money over a longer period.

Students have demanded that Penn divest from fossil fuels for years, with Fossil Free Penn leading the charge. The organization has held sit-ins and blockaded a trustee meeting in February 2020 in protest of the University's financial support of the fossil fuel industry. Penn announced last year that it would not invest in coal and tar sand industries, but FFP leaders felt this move did not go far enough.

College sophomore Toluwalase Akinwunmi said the University will often take a stance for racial justice, but it undermines its words by investing in the fossil fuel industry, as climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color. She pointed to the "Brick House" statue placed on 34th and Walnut streets in November to honor Black womanhood as an example of an empty gesture.

“As I look upon this statue, a reflection of myself and various other Black and brown women on campus advocating for the prosperity of their own communities comes into view," Akinwunmi said. "I see frustration and stress as they sit under an institution that solely uses their presence as diversity points and ignores the needs of their communities in the United States and abroad.”

Engineering junior Ryan Lam acknowledged that, while Penn has taken significant steps towards environmental sustainability such as the Power Purchase Agreement and the creation of the Environmental Innovations Initiative, peer institutions such as Brown University, Columbia University, and Cornell University have either partially or completely divested from fossil fuels. Lam called on Penn to follow suit.

Students also urged Penn to provide financial and legal resources to West Philadelphia residents to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the surrounding community.

Second-year law student Som-Mai Nguyen asked that the University provide local residents and organizations with resources such as rent, food, legal assistance, and other basic necessities. She recommended that the University make contributions similar to the $100 million gift to the School District of Philadelphia.

“The Penn community includes not only students, faculty, and staff, but our neighbors, many of whom are concerned about a potential outbreak following the University’s decision to bring over 3,000 undergraduate students back to campus. What plans are there to partner with local organizations in the city or expand testing to University City residents?” Nguyen said.

West Philadelphia residents voiced concerns with the University's decision to repopulate campus during the pandemic's deadliest phase, telling The Daily Pennsylvanian that it will "literally kill people."

Nguyen also asked for increased transparency from Penn about who it will provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to in light of contracted Bon Appétit dining workers receiving testing weeks after the semester started. She noted that the University’s COVID-19 alert level system states that staff who meet testing criteria will be tested weekly.

“How should a member of the community have interpreted what 'meeting testing criteria' means if staff who interact daily with students didn’t initially meet this criteria?” Nguyen said. 

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