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Editorial: The UC should cite climate change in its divestment of fossil fuels

By Editorial Board

Nov. 6, 2019 10:48 p.m.

With global warming acquiring an ever-growing presence, people are scrambling to make a change while corporate institutions lag behind.

For the University of California, though, it’s all about the bottom line when the world’s on fire.

In late September, the chief investment officer of the UC and the chairman of the UC Board of Regents wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times explaining the economic reasons for the UC’s move to divest from fossil fuels. And despite the University’s continued research on all things climate change, the decision to make the switch reads more like a financial audit than an environmentally conscious calculation.

More recently, the decision ended in a sharp critique of the University’s hypocrisy, when protests broke out over a panel at UCLA featuring the current and former CEOs of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Google, respectively, due to the companies’ ties to the fossil fuel industry.

For a system with $83 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry, the UC was overdue in making the change they stand for. But the way divestment is marketed stands to have a major impact, too.

Because as of now, it’s discussed as a matter of politics – not the science it’s based on.

The UC’s decision to cite financial reasons as the sole determinant for why they’re divesting speaks to an underlying unwillingness to be overtly political. But climate change is not a game of politics – it is an indisputable fact, and the UC knows that better than anyone. By making the decision to publicly cite global warming as part of the reason for divestment, the UC could make a statement that this is not a partisan issue.

And for a research university so involved in the issue, it seems contrary to the cause they’ve committed to.

The University has an entire page dedicated to climate change – studying it, celebrating those fighting it and even promoting the news that the UC has declared a climate emergency. Meanwhile, there is no mention of their decision to divest.

In their op-ed, the UC officers mention their decision may be misinterpreted as “born of political pressure.”

This is a dangerous sentiment. The extreme politicization of climate change only pushes progress further away. When the state, and its University, publicly refer to environmental change as a partisan issue, the process of increasing environmental sustainability quickly becomes rife with politics.

Granted, the UC’s decision to move away from fossil fuel investments is a good one – regardless of the context. And if they want to cite finances to feel better about their decision, so be it. But moving forward, the way in which major public institutions talk about climate change will become increasingly important. And as of now, the university’s tone reflects an institutional unwillingness to make a qualifying statement about the impending, nonpolitical reality of climate change.

The state of California burning for a month each year is not political. Scientists’ predictions for the coming years are not political. And as a top-tier public research university, the UC would do well to remind people of that in their decision to divest from fossil fuels.

The UC can make this about finances, but there might be no bottom line left to make in the coming century.

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