MU students advocate for MU to divest from fossil fuel industry

MU students take political action to encourage the university to discontinue investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Climate rally organizer Rory Butler speaks to a large crowd of people during the Global Climate Strike on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. More than 400 members of the community were in attendance at the rally advocating for climate action, students and residents alike. Photo by Photographer Teddy Maiorca

Environmental consciousness has always made sense to MU sophomore Rory Butler. Since Butler’s childhood on a 160-acre farm in Barnhart, Missouri, he said he has always appreciated nature and strived to preserve the earth.

Butler said he has always been aware of climate change, but once he educated himself more on the issue last school year, he began to take political action.

“Last winter break I was watching the video of Greta Thunberg addressing the UN climate summit,” Butler said. “That’s when I realized it was way worse than I thought. It was just scathing. I started crying and was like, ‘I have to figure out some way to do something about this.’”

Once Butler began doing more extensive research, he became aware of the UM system’s investment in the fossil fuel industry. Butler is currently the outreach director of Climate Leaders at Mizzou, a climate advocacy organization working to encourage the UM System to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Butler said these investments are a concrete way the university is contributing to climate change.

Christian Basi, MU news bureau director, emphasized the importance of practicing fiscal responsibility in managing investment funds.

“We also have a responsibility to students and to the state of Missouri to make sure that we are managing those dollars given to us in a very financially responsible manner,” Basi said. “We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing we’re trying to lower the cost of education as much as possible.”

It is unclear exactly how much the UM System is currently investing in fossil fuels. Basi said this is partially because it is difficult to determine how much money is being directed at a particular area within a company.

However, Basi said there is currently not enough demand for energy alternatives to warrant divestment from fossil fuels.

“With respect to the investment policies, we currently don’t believe that the alternatives to fossil fuels exist at a scale that is demanded by the global economy,” Basi said. “There has not been a persuasive nor a compelling argument that suggests that divestment of the UM System will have any meaningful impact on the transition.”

The University of California System agreed Sept. 17 to divest its $13.4 billion endowment from fossil fuels. The UC System joins a few other universities that have either divested fully from fossil fuels or have divested from coal, tar sands or other energies. Syracuse University, the University of Hawai’i, the University of Massachusetts Foundation and several other universities across the U.K. have divested fully from fossil fuels, according to Fossil Free.

The UC System cited financial risk as the reason for divestment. However, Basi said the UM System currently does not see a financial risk associated with further investment in fossil fuels. Butler sees the system’s strategy as wrong.

“Any economic strategy that depends on the destruction of the environment is a really bad long-term strategy,” Butler said.

In 2017, the now-defunct Mizzou Energy Action Coalition led a similar divestment movement to encourage the UM system to divest from the fossil fuel industry. UM System President Mun Choi declined students’ requests for divestment.

Butler said there has been a significant shift in the environmental and social role of climate change since the movement in 2017. He said that as the effects of climate change manifest, more students will take action against it, as seen by September's global climate strike.

“People care way more about climate change and they’re voicing their opinions,” Butler said. “I think now it’s impossible to deny that climate change is real. It’s impossible to deny that it’s human-caused. We all know that it’s going to get worse. ”

Sarah Guardia, vice president of Climate Leaders at Mizzou, also said it is important that students educate themselves as much as they can about the realities of climate change and act politically to take a stand against it.

“When people start massing together to change policies and demand action from big corporations or colleges it moves people with power and money to get things done,” Guardia said. “When people are silent that’s how things progress how they have to today.”

Basi said MU is already taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint. These steps include building a 100% biomass-fueled boiler, building and renovating LEED certified buildings and using biomass, wind and solar energy. Basi said 39% of MU’s campus energy is now made up of biomass, wind and solar energy and this is expected to reach 40% this year.

In addition, Basi mentioned some MU faculty members are currently researching new energy technologies as well as more sustainable methods to plant crops and feed livestock.

“It’s not just about what we’re doing for our own campus,” Basi said. “It’s about what we’re looking at in research technologies as well as educating students for the future.”

Butler encouraged students who support the divestment movement to be vocal about their concerns. He emphasized the importance of remaining politically engaged and said voting is essential to advocacy.

“Be that annoying person on Facebook and Instagram who posts things about the university’s investments,” Butler said. “Be that person who brings it up at dinner with people. Be like, ‘you know this university is profiting from fossil fuel corporations.’ Unless people are thinking about this issue all the time, it’s less likely to be addressed.”

Edited by Ben Scott | bscott@themaneater.com

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