BY: ANITA SIMHA
In the rise of “slacktivism” via passive link-sharing and status-posting, true campaigning has become somewhat scarcer. At Carolina, however, this image is not completely accurate. UNC Beyond Coal, an active group on campus, seeks to ensure UNC stops investing any of its endowment in the coal industry. Created two years ago, its methods of activism and themes of social justice harken back to direct action in the age before Buzzfeed articles. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a new member of this campaign.
UNC Beyond Coal is not the first divestment campaign to exist on campus. In the 1980s, a group called for divestment from companies operating in South Africa during the apartheid regime. After several years of speeches, sit-ins, and collaboration with the Board of Trustees, this movement led to successful divestiture in 1987. Five years ago in 2008, UNC divested from companies compliantly operating in Sudan during its period of genocide.
Members of the UNC Beyond Coal campaign recognize this similarity and look to the members of this previous movement for inspiration. During the presentation to the Board of Trustees committee, junior Tait Chandler declared, “We have stood up against injustice before and we have an opportunity to do it again,” in reference to these events.
The current movement, like the South African divestment initiative, includes themes of pressing social issues and human rights. In addition, both campaigns are student-developed, student-led, and fueled by student support. Even the timelines look similar in the sense that both campaigns drummed up support for several years before achieving an audience with the Board of Trustees to discuss the endowment.
Nonetheless, the path to divestment is now much more complicated than it was in years past due to complexities in its supervision from co-mingled funds to inclusion of other universities to increased division of its management.
The strategies used by the two initiatives also differ in image. The campaign from the 80s engaged in far more nonviolent direct action tactics such as fasts, arrests, and the construction of shantytowns. The UNC Beyond Coal movement forgoes radical or unprofessional action, instead pursuing avenues through UNC Chapel Hill’s administration. By comparing to the South Africa campaign, members of UNC Beyond Coal have decided which actions to take and which ones to avoid.
Furthermore, UNC-Chapel Hill was far from the first university to disinvest in South Africa. Other higher educational institutions divested in South African-affiliated companies beginning in 1978. Beyond Coal is, however, a leader in the push for coal divestment. In the fall of 2012, it was one of five initiatives in the country. Now, there are 308 nationwide campaigns. Although only six other American universities have disinvested their endowment funds from coal to date, UNC Beyond Coal members hope that this is a chance for UNC to continue in a tradition of leadership.
The endowment, made up mostly by donations, and its managers currently operate with little transparency, investing in various stocks that comprise a portfolio. There is, however, good reason to assume money goes towards “the filthy fifteen,” a group of coal mining and burning companies with whom we have relations. Duke Energy, which employed Governor Pat McCrory for 29 years and which supplies energy to most of North Carolina, is listed among these.
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, sophomore Anurag Angara, junior Tait Chandler, and junior Jasmine Ruddy presented the case for coal divestment to the Board of Trustees Finance and Infrastructure Committee. Chandler called divestment an “opportunity for Carolina to continue to be a leader in sustainability among universities across the country.” The group spoke for fifteen minutes, proposing a working group of various university constituencies to further research the feasibility of coal divestment before presenting its findings to the full Board of Trustees in March.
The committee’s Chair Steve Lerner supported the students’ proposal, but he expressed hesitance in assuming the working group would definitely lead to divestment, saying, “It’s really a complex issue.” The committee, which included Student Body President Christy Lambden, was receptive to the proposal in general, but wanted a clear definition of what it would entail. Chancellor Folt, who also attended, noted, “Before you start a working group, you have to have clarity on the charge.”
The committee also expressed uncertainty about a presentation to the Board of Trustees in the spring in case research was still incomplete. Lambden, who supported the movement during his campaign, pushed back when a member proposed holding off on any definitive action. He stated to the rest of the committee, “Certainly, we are in a position today where we can recommend a working group.” In the end, the committee decided to support formation of a working group to research the viability of divestiture without any strings or deadlines attached.
UNC Beyond Coal members, who have worked for their cause for two years, are considering this pivotal moment a victory. As the presenters explained to the Board of Trustees committee, the cause for coal divestment has both economic and moral justifications. Angara explains, “The most compelling reason to divest from coal as a public university is that the true cost of coal is 170 percent its retail value, which is shouldered by tax payers and detracts from the affordability and academic value of UNC.” Additionally, the Aperio Group found that the added risk to a portfolio would be one half of a thousandth of a percent by divesting from coal.
Additionally, UNC Beyond Coal members contend that coal investment is becoming increasingly risky due to more and more stringent environmental regulations that limit its production. In the past two years, 120 of the former 520 operating American coal plants were shut down because they did not meet these new standards. Ruddy acknowledges that those managing the endowment are professionals with regard to investment, but adds, “We’re concerned that we’re not going to get out before it’s too late.”
From a medical standpoint, the group argues, coal causes various health issues over its lifespan, from the mining process to burning to disposal. Because it is the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, coal burning also produces the most carbon dioxide, which fuels climate change. This leads into a moral issue, UNC Beyond Coal members argue; by investing in coal, the university is financially supporting these negative health consequences.
By making claims about the morality and justifiability of coal investment versus scientific observations only, the UNC Beyond Coal campaign has made this a social issue versus simply an environmental one. Sophomore Jack Largess states, “For me, coal is a social justice issue in addition to being an environmental issue. It’s not only about environmental degradation and it’s not about pretending that divestment is going to make them mine or burn less coal. It’s about standing in solidarity with the people whose lives are hurt by these companies.”
To show student support of this dual issue, the group has already collected over 4,000 student signatures for its petition in support of coal divestment. In a referendum last year, 77 percent of the student body voted in favor of divestment. Ruddy, as the Grassroots Coordinator for the group, spends a lot of time developing new ways to involve diverse members of the UNC student body. “Sometimes I like to think of this campaign as a second major,” she quips.
Anita Simha is a new member of the Beyond Coal campaign. She has been wary of coal since regretfully receiving it for Christmas during early childhood.