Guest blog written by Fiona Gettinger. Fiona is a Sophmore at the Univerisity of New Hampshire majoring in Environmental Conservation Studies, she is also a campus coordinator with the Greenpeace Student Network and the President of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. This post was originally published as an Op-Ed in the « The New Hampshire. »

Charles Dickens once described a future of contradictions, writing that, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” More than any other era, that time is now. We are off balance at a precipice of inevitable change; we have an ever expanding technological horizon, rapidly diminishing natural resources, an out of control global population and a planet at capacity.

Two months ago, five UNH students met with some of the most senior level administrators of our university to discuss the possibility of divesting the endowment from fossil fuel corporations, and reinvesting in socially and environmentally responsible companies. As we found out, investments are actually made by an external company, Prime Buchholz, and major decisions go through the Foundation’s Board of Directors, and the Investment and Finance Committee. They declined to provide a position or opinion on divestment at the time, however, last week the Student Environmental Action Coalition received the official statement of the UNH Foundation regarding its stance on divestment from fossil fuel companies. 

It read, “The UNH Foundation’s primary responsibility as stewards of donor-endowed funds is to generate the maximum amount of return for UNH to support students, faculty and programs.”

UNH cannot continue making all of its decisions only considering what is profitable instead of what is ethical. At what cost to society do we keep running business as we are? Would UNH invest in the drug trade or sex trafficking? Many of the fossil fuel corporations we believe UNH invests in break laws and regulations on a regular basis, and people are dying because of them. We know UNH would not want to invest in crimes against humanity, but the effects of burning fossil fuels rise to that level, so where and when do we draw the line?

Hampshire College and Unity College have officially divested their endowments from fossil fuels, and there are active campaigns underway on 47 campuses across the United States. Just last week, 72 percent of Harvard students voted in favor of divesting the university’s $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels. The finest academic institutions in this country took a stand against the racial injustice of Apartheid by supporting a similar divestment campaign. It was obvious and undeniable then, as it is now, that the issue of Apartheid was a deeply moral one and that investment in any companies that were perpetuating that system was unethical and outside the mission of most major universities. In this instance, the call to action is even louder, the mission more deeply moral. We are not taking action for a specific people in a specific place, we are taking action for all people everywhere, for clean air, clean water, and a stable climate for children yet unborn. The stakes are the highest imaginable – ensuring the ability of our planet to sustain life for future generations. As an institution that is focused on preparing this generation for its future, we have a responsibility to ensure that there is one for which to be prepared.

In discussions on this topic, we have repeatedly heard the term “fiduciary duty,” the legal obligation of one party to act in the best interest of another. While the term is too often used to mean exclusively increasing profits, fiduciary duty is actually a broad obligation to ensure that UNH’s mission is best upheld. UNH was established as an agricultural school, therefore a commitment to the prevention of further climate change is absolutely fundamental. Our mission, as stated on the UNH website, notes that, “[UNH] has a national and international agenda” with “a strong sense of responsibility for this special place, a commitment to serving the public good.” For an institution of higher learning to continue to completely disregard its own mission and prioritize profit over the well being of its students will set a precedent of avarice and indifference to the suffering of others.

This university also happens to be near the coast and is at risk of directly seeing the effects of climate change as Hurricane Sandy made so apparent just a month ago. So the fact that the Foundation is not thinking about the preservation of this campus is a violation of fiduciary duty in and of itself.

The UNH Foundation needs to consider the very real consequences of climate change. From hurricanes to desertification and drought, these consequences have been increasing in proportion in the last decade. Global carbon dioxide emissions for 2011 were yet again the highest in human history, and recent scientific studies estimate global temperature rise to be between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Our generation has grown up in a world of extreme weather and natural disasters, and we have never experienced a month or year that has been colder than average. This is the legacy that our parents left us, and we will leave our children an uninhabitable planet if we do nothing about it.

The Foundation’s statement acknowledges that, “Sustainability is a leading priority for UNH” but continues on to say that, “The Foundation recognizes student interest in seeking better alignment between the university’s focus on sustainability programs and the Foundation’s investment policy; however, divestment in fossil fuels is not a practical or feasible option for the UNH Foundation.” There is no explanation or evidence provided as to why it is not a practical option. As far as we know they denied the possibility without even inquiring into the actual feasibility of divestment at UNH.

As more universities and colleges across the nation divest their endowments from fossil fuels, it will be embarrassing for UNH to fall behind in sustainability, something in which we have claimed to be a leader and innovator. UNH has the opportunity to become the first state university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, or it can refuse to stand up to the corporations which are obliterating the futures of its own students. The Student Environmental Action Coalition at UNH will continue to be an active voice on this campus, and within the larger youth climate movment: speaking out against UNH funding climate change and the suffering of millions of people worldwide.