Samantha Wetherell is trying to push people in power to put out the flames. 

“We’ve all grown up hearing every single day of our lives that the world is burning,” Samantha says. “And we’ve witnessed time and time again a lot of the people in power or a lot of institutions around us fail to address it.”

Samantha and a few dozen others gathered at the central mall on the University of Arizona campus on a scorchingly sunny September afternoon. They brought bullhorns and signs and walked a circuit shouting slogans to underscore the urgency of climate change — and what they see as the university’s heel-dragging and hypocritical response.

Samantha is president of UAZ Divest, a group working with the University of Arizona community “to align the university’s endowment with mission-driven investments to combat the climate crisis.” 

UAZ Divest President Samantha Wetherell speaks to a crowd of protestors about the group’s demand for the University of Arizona to divest from fossil fuels during a Global Climate Strike rally in Tucson, Ariz. on Sept. 23, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson

These UA students are trying to wield economic power to help beat climate change by aiming at what they see as its source: capital investment in and dependency on fossil fuels. The university, however, with tens of millions invested in fossil fuel companies, is reluctant to pull the financial plug.

Divestment is exactly what it sounds like: the opposite of investment, pulling capital from, rather than dumping it in, stocks or bonds.

More than 40 universities and more than 5,000 investment managers and other financial asset organizations across the world have signed onto the Principle for Responsible Investments, a partnership with the United Nations launched in 2006 that encourages “a more sustainable global financial system” by taking into account “the increasing relevance of environmental, social and corporate governance issues to investment practices.”.

Academic institutions that have signed onto the action include the University of Colorado, the University of New Hampshire Foundation and Northwestern University.

The principles aim for an “economically efficient, sustainable global financial system” that will “reward long-term, responsible investment and benefit the environment and society as a whole.”

UAZ Divest’s demands include a complete divestment from fossil fuels by 2029, a commitment to no longer invest in the fossil fuel industry and including student representation in the University of Arizona Foundation.

The University of Arizona Foundation, a nonprofit that manages donations to the university, as of November 2022 has about $82 million invested in fossil fuel companies, or about 7.2% of its total endowment, according to Pam Scott, the UA’s vice president of communications. Despite repeated overtures from students organizing with UAZ Divest, the foundation has made clear it has no immediate intentions of selling off its fossil fuel investments.

Scott noted that the foundation doesn’t hold direct equity investments in publicly-traded oil and gas companies, and the fossil fuel investments are part of privately-managed funds.

“Private Energy was the top performer in the portfolio in FY 2022, up 44.1 percent,” Scott wrote in an email. Scott declined to comment on whether UA is maintaining the investments because they are performing well or if the foundation expected them to maintain that performance in the long term.

Return on investment wasn’t on students’ and activists’ minds during the rally. Their concern was environmental and existential: “Do not let our planet die!”

“The UA prides itself on trying to do better by its students, but they really just don’t care,” Ayah Sadideen, a senior majoring in law who attended the rally said. “That really infuriates me.”

Asani Fowler, left, and Ayah Sadideen listen to a speaker during a Global Climate Strike rally at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Ariz. on Sept. 23, 2022. The event was hosted by the student-led group, UAZ Divest, which is demanding the UA divest from fossil fuels. Credit: Michael McKisson

The foundation also declined to comment on whether the university’s self-proclaimed stance as a leader in climate change research is in conflict with their investments in fossil fuel companies.

UA President Robert Robbins did not respond to a request for comment. UAZ Divest leaders said that he expressed verbal support for their demands in a video meeting last spring. 

In 2019, at a University Climate Change Coalition meeting in Vancouver, Canada, Robbins said to a panel of university presidents, “We need to crack things open to have any chance of providing real, actionable solutions to the problems of climate change and other environmental issues.”

UAZ Divest has been pushing for the past three years to get the foundation to pull its money away from fossil fuel companies. But in an August meeting with the UA foundation’s CEO, John-Paul Roczniak, and the university’s chief financial officer, Lisa Rulney, the foundation made it clear they had “no plans to meet any requests regarding a public commitment to fossil fuel divestment,” according to a UAZ Divest press release.

Roczniak and Rulney aren’t the only ones refusing to oblige the divestment movement. A number of conservative and right-wing politicians and organizations have been pushing back against ESG, an increasingly common term for setting environmental, social, and governance standards for more responsible investing. The American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, the legal group that helped write the notoriously anti-immigrant Arizona law, SB 1070, recently filed suit against a proposed Security and Exchange Commission regulation that would mandate some climate-related disclosures for investors.

“When it comes to allocating our funding to industries that are actively killing not just us but our planet, it’s pitiful,” Asani Fowler, a sophomore majoring in photography, said at the rally. “It’s only going to get worse.”

The disconnect between UA’s commitment to sustainability and securing a plan for carbon neutrality, is disturbing for a generation of students who expect more than words. “It makes me a little ashamed to be a student here,” Asani says.

María Mata leads Global Climate Strike protestors in chants while marching around the University of Arizona mall in Tucson, Ariz. on Sept. 23, 2022. The rally was organized by the student-led UAZ Divest group which is demanding the UA divest from fossil fuels. Credit: Michael McKisson

Why divest?

What’s the efficacy of divestment as a political or environmental strategy? Can it derail an industry, put an end to apartheid, or save our planet?

A global divestment movement begun in the 1960s is credited with applying an extra ounce of pressure — on top of decades of student and popular organizing — to bring the South African government to the table to negotiate an end to apartheid. Several major U.S. universities, including Michigan State, Columbia and Harvard, were leaders in the divestment movement. Arizona State University divested from companies doing business in South Africa in 1986.

The tactics honed in pressuring South Africa have since been applied to Israel over its conflict with Palestine and, more recently, to fossil fuel companies’ stranglehold on the planet.

An Oxford study found that divestment itself, however, isn’t going to have a huge impact on the runaway strength of the fossil fuel industry. According to the study, “Even if the maximum possible capital was divested from fossil fuel companies, their shares prices are unlikely to suffer precipitous declines over any length of time.”

A similar study found that while direct impacts of divestment campaigns are small, the indirect and less quantifiable impacts, especially in terms of a shift in public discourse, are significant.

“Divestment has put questions of finance and climate change on the agenda and played a part in changing discourse around the legitimacy, reputation and viability of the fossil fuel industry,” the report states.

Changing the discourse is a big part of UAZ Divest’s goals. 

“This is not an activist campus,” Samantha says, noting that only a few dozen people attended the rally. “It’s hard to get people to turn out.” Which is why they wanted to be visible — and loud. 

“Student! Power!” they shouted. “Student! Power!” Their immediate hope, as much as actually achieving divestment and keeping the planet from combusting, is to bring awareness to the issue and establish community.

Stella Heflen, a senior studying applied physics and a member of UAZ Divest, underscored the importance of making the student body, and the larger Tucson and Arizona community, understand what’s on the line, and how one of the state’s largest institutions won’t give up its ties to fossil fuel companies. 

“I think our goal is to sort of build this community. We want a coalition, a community of people that are interested in this issue and are interested in helping us push this issue forward,” Stella says.

The foundation seems “afraid of the impact divestment will have on donors,” Stella said. “They’re afraid of potential ramifications for the fund if they were to alienate large donors.”

One of the group’s tactics is to convince alumni to withhold donations until the foundation divests. Though that donation moratorium remains only an idea, the goal is to convince alumni to withhold up to $1 million.

The foundation’s refusal to financially budge, UAZ Divest members point out, contradicts the other stance of the university, which seeks to position itself as a leader in climate change research.

Ayah Sadideen, a student double-majoring in law and psychology who attended the September rally, says that the student unions are increasingly eco-friendly, but saw such cosmetic measures as “a cop-out.”

“Every institution that divests is a contribution to the movement that fossil fuels are wrecking our communities and the planet,” Thanu Yakupitiyage, U.S. team lead at 350.org, one of the nation’s leading activist groups fighting climate change, told Arizona Luminaria. “Dozens of universities in the U.S. have divested from fossil fuels, along with museums, religious institutions, and more — totaling a divestment of trillions over the last decade.”

From left to right, Ben Morse, Asani Fowler and Ayah Sadideen cheer a speaker during a Global Climate Strike rally at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Ariz. on Sept. 23, 2022. The event was hosted by the student-led group, UAZ Divest, which is demanding the UA divest from fossil fuels. Credit: Michael McKisson

Other divestments

In early March, the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees ASU, UA, and NAU, ordered the schools to begin selling off Russian investments. ASU had about $2.3 million in Russian investments, and the UA had roughly $1.5 million.

At the same time, UA has pointedly declined to participate in any way with the BDS movement (boycott, divest, sanction) targeting Israel for its occupation of Palestine and accusing it of war crimes against its people. After the Middle Eastern Studies Association voted to stand in solidarity with Palestinians by participating in the BDS movement, UA decided not to renew its membership

Arizona passed an anti-BDS bill in 2016, which currently prohibits state contracts with entities that boycott Israel. The current state of the law, prohibiting companies that engage in BDS tactics against Israel from obtaining state government contracts came about after a seesaw of legal challenges, amendments and higher court rulings. Now the rule only applies to companies with 10 or more employees and for government contracts over $100,000.

Divesting from companies that profit from the torching of the Earth, activists believe, should be an easier sell. But that’s not how everybody sees it. Kimberly Yee, the recently reelected Arizona state treasurer has pushed back against ESG (environment, social, and governance) standards, sometimes pejoratively termed “woke capitalism.” 

Yee and the Arizona State Treasury board passed a new rule that prohibits the office from considering “political whims,” such as potential effects on the environment, while making state investments.   

In the new rule, published Aug. 30, the all-caps first section is titled “ONLY PECUNIARY FACTORS CAN BE CONSIDERED IN INVESTING.”

State Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, who lost to Yee in a race for the state treasurer this November, attended the UAZ Divest rally on campus. “Not only are the investments in the fossil fuel industry bad for our planet, unethical and immoral, but it’s also a bad investment as it doesn’t bring back much money,” Quezada said, as reported by the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

“The most terrifying thing is how exponentially things are happening,” Ellie Standifer, a UAZ Divest member and a junior studying political economics, said. “And they’re increasing to a level where I can’t realistically predict where we’ll be in 15 years. I’m literally terrified to think about it.”

Despite the rather small turnout to the rally, organizers were pleased that the crowd was diverse, including students, faculty, community activists and state leaders. Samantha said it was just a first step.

University of Arizona professor David Sbarra speaks to the crowd of Global Climate Strike protestors on the University of Arizona mall in Tucson, Ariz., Sept. 23, 2022. The protest was hosted by the student-led group, UAZ Divest, which is demanding the UA divest from fossil fuels. Credit: Michael McKisson

“We need to demonstrate to the foundation that the university is behind us,” Samantha says.

They’re not looking for a mere announcement or a pledge, either. They want action.

“Every effort to divest is more than symbolic,” Yakupitiyage of 350.org said. “It is a ripple effect showing that the time of fossil fuels is over. Universities have a role to play in the efforts to transition to a renewable economy.”

As the bell rang for 1 p.m., the protesters were soon lost to the regular between-classes milling, and it was unclear who had heard their message. Organizers vow to fight on, however, with other rallies and actions planned. 

That fight is going to be a long one. The group recently  met with Tucson Mayor Regina Romero as part of a community dialogue on climate action. In an Instagram post from early November, they remind us that, “No climate expertise is necessary, we all hold knowledge about our own lives, areas of work, and communities that can help develop meaningful climate actions.”

Journalist Michael McKisson contributed to this story

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...