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BU divests from fossil fuels, activists react

Boston University President Robert Brown announced a decision last Thursday that, for some students, was long-awaited: the decision to end the investment of BU’s endowment in fossil fuels.

divestBU rally
Members of Divest BU in September 2016 rallying for Boston University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. BU President Robert Brown announced Thursday that effective immediately, the University would end the investment of its endowment in fossil fuels. BETSEY GOLDWASSER/ DFP FILE

Andrea Wetzler — the president of the club Divest BU, an organization created in 2012 to push BU to divest the University’s endowment from fossil fuels — said that the decision was “monumental.”

“It’s taken too long, but it’s crazy that it’s here,” said Wetzler, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

BU’s divestment came a week ago. President Brown wrote in the email announcement that BU chose to divest “​​to invest with managers focused on technologies to develop renewable energy and reduce GHGs, and for the University to move forward with an aggressive Climate Action Plan.”

In 2013, BU established the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to advise the Board of Trustees. In 2016, the ACSRI set a goal to reevaluate divestiture in 2021, five years later. Upon review, ACSRI suggested to the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels “over time.”

In an email, ACSRI chair Rick Reidy deferred to Colin Riley, the spokesperson for the University.

“It became a mechanism to advise the board and bring expertise to the table,” Riley said. “It’s a very healthy mechanism, and the board saw fit to create the committee specifically to get some expertise and guidance and recommendations.”

Riley said the ACSRI in 2016 was “instrumental” to helping the University move forward with the Climate Action Plan, which he said was “very comprehensive.”

“If you look at the signature building going on campus, the Computing and Data Sciences building that is going to be heated and cooled by geothermal energy, you can see the seriousness with which the University is approaching these issues,” Riley said.

In the divestment announcement, Brown wrote the “very small fraction of our endowment that is invested in fossil fuel producers and extractors makes the Board’s commitment economically inconsequential.”

Wetzler said this was “jarring to read.”

“If it was so economically inconsequential as they say … why didn’t they do this earlier?” Wetzler said, referring to Brown’s email.

In 2019, the ACSRI stated in a letter to Divest BU that the change in the climate crisis “was not significant enough to warrant a recommendation to the Board of Trustees that it reconsider, in advance of the 5-year mark (fall 2021), the issues surrounding climate change and related investment and divestment opportunities.”

BU will divest over time, but Wetzler said Divest BU wants to push for the process to be expedited.

“We don’t have 10 years, that’s a third of our way to the campus being underwater,” she said, referring to reports on expected flooding to occur on BU’s campus. “Part of Charles River campus will be underwater … How sad would it be if their Jenga [Center for Computing and Data Sciences] building only gets 10 years, 20 years before it’s underwater?”

Harvard University announced its own divestment plan 13 days prior to BU’s announcement. Both Boston University and Harvard University activists who fought for the divestment originally have discussed further action to keep their institutions accountable.

Divest BU is now looking forward to the creation of a social impact club since the divestment, such as Harvard’s divestment advocacy club, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

Divest Harvard also wants to push Harvard toward reinvestment in other areas, said Klara Kuemmerle, a sophomore at Harvard and alumni liaison for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

“Reinvesting means investing in sustainable organizations and organizations that prioritize climate justice, not just climate mitigation strategies,” Kuemmerle said.

Harvard didn’t explicitly use the word “divestment” in their announcement to end investment in the fossil fuel industry and didn’t credit the work of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Kuemmerle said.

“I was impressed by the way that BU published their divestment news in giving credit to the activists for the work that they had done for compelling the University to divest,” Kuemmerle said. “So it was disheartening, especially since, if anything, Harvard should be proud that we are students who can come together, organize for what we believe is just for our climate.”

The BU divestment announcement didn’t thank Divest BU specifically, but thanked students, staff and faculty.

“They also thanked the ACSRI, which was created out of Divest BU protests, so they’re just kind of dancing around naming us,” said Wetzler.

Riley said that the decision of divestment is consistent with the other actions that BU has taken to address climate change, such as purchasing 48.6 MW of wind energy annually.

“I hope everyone sees it as recognition of where we are, and that it’s a positive direction,” Riley said.

Wetzler said that there’s more research indicating that young people are worried about the world’s future.

“They really need to start feeling like there’s fire under their bums, they need to get the pace moving,” Wetzler said. “If you want to be a leader, be a leader. If you want to just use that language, it’s going to show you for who you are… and I really hope they end up achieving this faster than what they planned because otherwise, it’s just a lot of performance and less action.”

Stella Dzialas, a sophomore studying environmental analysis and policy in the CAS, said it was nice to see a big step like this being made.

Dzialas — who is also a member of Epsilon Eta, a co-ed professional environmental fraternity centered around promoting a sustainable environment — said BU “is maybe taking from Harvard’s example, but then hopefully people will take from BU’s example.”

“It just seemed like a very purposeful gesture,” said Dzialas, “that I think will go a long way in setting an example.”

One Comment

  1. Congratulations to all the students past and present who worked so hard for this victory! Persevering through adversity with integrity, shared values and moral commitment, this win is such an important lesson about what’s possible when we build collective power fueled by a relentless drive for justice.