Sunday, 19 April 2015 00:00

Commentary: UMW professors back student sit-in for divestment in fossil fuels

Written by Jason Davidson |
Commentary: UMW professors back student sit-in for divestment in fossil fuels Timmy Clay

SHORTLY AFTER University of Mary Washington students began their sit-in in front of President Hurley’s office a member of the board of visitors reportedly said they were “being a pest.”

This reaction suggests that Divest UMW is actually on the right path. History shows us that to attain social change, change that may be difficult and/or costly, it is often necessary to make decision-makers uncomfortable and even outraged.

In organizing the Freedom Rides, James Farmer knew many would see him as a pest and others would see him as much worse. When Cesar Chavez organized boycotts to improve the rights of agricultural workers he was fully aware he would be seen as a nuisance and a threat. When Rosa Parks chose to sit in the front of the bus she knew she would annoy some and enrage others.

We stand with Divest UMW and their courageous decision to sit-in for as long as it takes to get the board of visitors to accept the proposal for an exploratory subcommittee on the feasibility of divestment in the fossil fuel industry.

Climate change is among the greatest threats to our country and the world today and we owe these students our gratitude for standing against those who would profit from it. The scientific consensus is quite clear on two points: Our planet is warming and that such warming is caused by human activity (i.e., greenhouse gas emissions).

In 2014, for example, the International Panel on Climate Change said that greenhouse gas emissions were “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees over the past century, and is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5 degrees over the next hundred years.”

We need to do everything we can to keep that rise to a minimum.

Why does one care if the earth’s climate changes a few or even 10 degrees? If unchecked, climate change will lead to massive and destabilizing refugee flows, extreme weather events and their related health and political ramifications, mass extinction of species, and fundamental disruptions to the agriculture sector; witness California.

Finally, in October 2014 the U.S. Department of Defense labeled climate change an “immediate risk” to the nation. Why? Instability will result from many of the aforementioned changes.

Moreover, climate change is likely to leave many of our low-lying air and naval bases at home and abroad under water.

Some on the UMW board of visitors argue that we have no direct investments in fossil fuels. Instead, the university has money in funds that may invest in such fuels.

Still, we can and should change our investment strategy to allow us to build a portfolio that does not include the 5 percent or so of fossil fuel companies. The consequences of not acting on climate change make this issue uniquely demanding of difficult choices.

Recall, finally, that all Divest UMW is asking for to end the sit-in is a committee to explore the feasibility of divestment.

Climate change may not seem like a big deal now. It will be a big deal in the future. We are grateful that the students of Divest UMW are insisting so that our university plays its part in reducing the likelihood that our future is determined by the worst effects of climate change.

Jason Davidson is a professor of political science and international affairs at UMW.

Other signers include: Melanie Szulczewski, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences; Craig Vasey, chair of the department of classics, philosophy and religion;, Leslie Martin, associate professor of sociology; and Stephen Hanna, professor of geography.

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