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Student club calls for divestment from fossil fuels, reinvestment into the community

Students march down Cameron Ave. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 to protest UNC's coal plant.

UNC Reinvest is calling for the University to fully divest from fossil fuels, close its coal-fired power plant and increase transparency about how UNC’s endowment is being invested. 

The club was formed last semester by co-presidents Gabriela Duncan and Katie Flanagan, who wanted to create an environmental organization that focused on systemic issues over individual actions. 

They aim to put a spotlight on UNC’s investments in the fossil fuel industry, Flanagan said. Their long-term goal is getting the University to completely divest and then reinvest into the UNC community in a positive and sustainable way.

“We often felt like a lot of individual actions were being put at the forefront, when in reality it's mostly corporations that are creating the pollution that is driving the climate crisis,” Flanagan said.

In the early 2010s, student groups including the Sierra Student Coalition were active in advocating for divestment from fossil fuels

In 2013, former Chancellor Holden Thorp guaranteed the University would stop its coal usage by 2020 and, in a referendum held in 2013, 77 percent of students voted in support of UNC divesting from the coal industry.

But student and administration action around divestment seemed to fizzle out in the mid 2010s, Duncan and Flanagan said. 

Duncan and Flanagan said they were surprised to learn of these past movements and were motivated to pick up their momentum to once again bring awareness to the issue of divestment.

“To find this out, we literally just looked up divestment on the DTH website,” Flanagan said. “We found a bunch of stuff, which we totally did not expect because I feel like when we first started this organization we were like, ‘Oh my god, no one is talking about how UNC is investing in fossil fuels!’”

One of Flanagan’s key motivations to start the club was to look at the University through a critical lens and hold it accountable for its actions, she said.

“This is supposed to be an institution of social progression, yet they are directly funding the climate crisis, and I think it's really important to hold your institution accountable,” Flanagan said.

Junior Owen Ryerson said he joined UNC Reinvest because he believes divestment and reinvestment are the most impactful avenues of student environmental organizing that can be done on campus now.

“UNC's investment in fossil fuels is having such a detrimental impact on our environment, on environmental justice and on our future,” Ryerson said. “By divesting, UNC has the opportunity to take a stand and show that it is willing to prioritize the values that it espouses and prioritize standing up for future generations, the lives of its students and the lives of the community members which it represents.”

Investments for UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System are managed by the UNC Management Company. In September 2014, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution requesting the Management Company research targeted investments for the University’s endowment assets that advance environmentally friendly, clean energy strategies.

“At the Management Company, we believe that supporting the development of alternative energy sources is the most effective and pragmatic way to assist in the important effort to reduce reliance on coal and other fossil fuel-based energy sources,” the Management Company said in its most recent report.

Mike Piehler, UNC's chief sustainability officer, said in a statement that the University is committed to greenhouse gas neutrality and is actively pursuing its energy transition, including ending the use of coal. He did not provide a specific timeline.

“The recently established Carolina Sustainability Council has engaged the students, faculty and staff to shape and pursue a broad sustainability agenda which includes greenhouse gas neutrality as a core goal,” Piehler said in the statement.

UNC Reinvest took part in a No Coal UNC rally on Sept. 22 that was organized by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. The rally, held both in person and via Zoom, called for UNC to end the use of its coal-fired power plant by 2023.

Duncan said participating in the rally was a good way for the club to start off the school year and build momentum.

“Even though we're all in this really weird time with COVID-19, there is hope that you can still have some meaningful organizing,” Duncan said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on UNC Reinvest’s plans for the semester, Flanagan said. Instead of holding any in-person events or meetings, she said the club has focused on educating students and the community about UNC’s fossil fuel investments, as well as trying to increase transparency about the University’s investments.

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“We're trying to connect with other environmental orgs and social justice orgs as well, because it's very, very important to highlight that environmentalism is social justice,” Flanagan said. “We're just trying to network, connect, get the word out.”

Although COVID-19 makes UNC Reinvest’s future unsure, Duncan and Flanagan said next semester they plan to get the administration’s attention and perhaps hold some safe, in-person, direct actions.

Currently, Duncan said the club has had several general body meetings online and has also been working on community building through Zoom parties and game nights.

“One of the core aspects of organizing is building connections with the people who you're working with,” Duncan said. “If we have these little events every now then it's just a nice way to kind of relax from everything going on this semester, and also just get to know each other really well so that we can feel more comfortable with each other when we do our organizing.”