Could the UCSB Fossil Fuel Protest Be a Harbinger of Student Activism Across the State?

The University of California–Santa Barbara chancellor came out in support of fossil fuel divestment after students camped out in the administration building for 74 hours.
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The University of California–Santa Barbara chancellor came out in support of fossil fuel divestment after students camped out in the administration building for 74 hours.

The lobby of the University of California–Santa Barbara administration building was crammed with students on Thursday afternoon, their sleeping bags piled high in one corner of the room next to a table scattered with loaves of bread and a jar of peanut butter. Posters scrawled with messages like "TURNS OUT FOSSIL FUELS ARE BAD" and "Fxck Fossil Fuels" lined the walls around them. Many of the students had been here for nearly 74 hours, voicing their demand that the UC system divest entirely from fossil fuels.

To keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius—which experts agree would be catastrophic for our planet—we must keep one-third of all oil reserves, half of all natural gas, and more than 80 percent of coal untapped underground, according to the World Resources Institute. While the University of California Board of Regents touts its commitment to sustainable investments—indeed, in 2015, the system sold its investments in coal and oil sands companies, which at that time totaled roughly $200 million—it still invests nearly $3 billion of its $97.6 billion endowment and retirement assets in oil and gas companies.

"The UC system is investing in these companies that have these business plans that depend on the destabilization of the security and safety of its students," says Cassie Macy, a political science major and spokesperson for Fossil Free UCSB, the student group that organized the sit-in. "When I came to UCSB I had the expectation that it was an environmentally sound school. It's a little bit hypocritical that we're claiming to be one of the leaders in climate change yet investing $2.8 billion in the industry."

Nearly 400 student and faculty members participated in the sit-in, which began on Monday at 10 am. Protestors demanded that UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang do "all in his power to make fossil fuel divestment happen,” including reaching out to other chancellors in the UC system, and encouraging the other administrations to support similar current and future student campaigns at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz.

"I think that the fossil industry has to be targeted as the enemy in this fight over climate change," says Theo Lequesne, a Ph.D. student in global studies and a coordinator for Fossil Free UCSB. "For too long we've been talking about how this is an individual responsibility, individual solution kind of problem. It's time to change the story and divestment is a way to do that."

Shortly before noon on Thursday, the UCSB protestors' demands were, if not answered, at least heard, when Yang voiced his support for the student movement for divestment. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Margaret Klawunn read a statement from the chancellor: "I stand by our students who have been sitting in calling for fossil fuel divestment this past week and support their aims."

The chancellor's support is a first step toward meaningful action. The divestment movement began on college campuses in the Northeast in 2012, according to Inside Climate News, and, by 2016, individuals and institutions around the globe divested nearly $5 trillion from fossil fuel investments. At least nine other universities in California, including Stanford and Humbolt State, have committed to divesting from fossil fuels.

"In the coming week, I look forward to working with my fellow chancellors in support of a thorough and transparent discussion on divestment from fossil fuels as part of the UC's approach to combating the climate crisis," the statement concluded.

Yang is the first within the UC system to come out in support of divestment. "This is really a historic moment in this campaign," Lequesne says.

The University of California Board of Regents meets next week in San Francisco, and the students hope that Yang's support will help to convince Richard Sherman, chair of the investment committee for the University of California Board of Regents, to divest.