Student led movement fuels environmental discussion

By Emily Ries – [email protected] – Multimedia Editor | Feb. 18, 2015 |
UNC Asheville’s Divestment Coalition urged UNC system leaders to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in sustainable green technologies during panel discussion on Feb. 12.
“We started as a bunch of student leaders from various student organizations. Once we came together, our focus was on building student and administrative support and educating our community about these issues,” said Dan Pungello, panelist and co-director at UNCA’s Student Environmental Center.
Concerned investors, both individual and institutional, are aligning and realigning their assets to meet social and environmental goals alongside their financial goals, according to environmental professionals.
“While I understand the divestment may not be what brings down the fossil fuel industry, they are responding, and they are responding with fear, and they are responding with anger and that makes me happy,” said Carolina Arias, panelist and environmental studies student.
According to university officials, UNC Management Company controls the university’s total endowment fund of more than $38 million, along with 14 other schools in the UNC system.
“We want to be a positive contributor, we just don’t think divestment is the way to
do it,” said Jonathon King, president and CEO of UNC Management Company.
The board of trustees of Chapel Hill passed a resolution in September 2014 requesting UNC Management Company to research targeted investments for the university’s endowment assets that advance environmentally-friendly clean energy strategies, according to university officials.
“UNCA is in Appalachia, which means that the fossil fuel industry, coal extraction specifically, operates in our backyard,” Arias said. “Mountaintop removal has been used for decades as a strategy for taking out coal and then bringing it to Asheville and burning it in local coal-powered plants. This issue is not a distant issue, it’s a personal issue.”
According to the U.S. forum for sustainable and responsible investing, more than $6 trillion is under professional management in the U.S. and engaged in at least one form of a socially responsible investing strategy.
“You see change, and you see seeds of change and you start to see things happening.  This is a wonderful beginning of a long, long road, but it’s a very, very important road for society to go down,” said John Pierce, vice chancellor for finance and operations at UNCA.
Professors at the University of British Columbia voted to urge the university’s board of governors to sell the school’s fossil fuels stocks over a five year period, said Fran Teplitz, social investing and policy director for Green America.
This month, the University of Maine made a commitment to divest all direct holdings in coal companies, and in December Chico State became the first public university to commit to divesting fully from all fossil fuel companies, Teplitz said.
“We’ve worked to ensure that our campaign is informed and educated and
connected with other campaigns around the region and the country, and we’ve been
sharing a lot of resources,” Pungello said.
According to coalition members, the group seeks the help of university administration, the foundation board and the board of trustees to develop a shareholder divestment strategy.
“We are talking to the right people and we are getting leverage. It’s so exciting because we are such a young group on campus. I’m hoping it will serve as another model for schools in the UNC system to follow,” said Erin Bridges, junior environmental studies student.