Blog post by Sarah Sciortino (UVM student and 350VT intern)

The climate movement has been gaining necessary momentum over the last few weeks. Climate science doesn’t lie– and people are increasingly acknowledging the urgency of climate change. 

At 11 AM on September 20, 2019, University of Vermont students poured out of buildings to strike for climate action. There were so many fruitful conversations about climate change and campus involvement, and then, at 11:45, we marched down to City Hall, filled with a sense of urgency, unity, and concern for our shared planet– for a strike demonstrating the commitment of our community. 

The Burlington climate strike instilled a sense of hope in me. This was easily the largest mobilization of students I have ever seen. My classmates, peers and I were in our element– fighting for the cause we all care about so deeply. I saw so many familiar faces, unified in fear of what could happen if society keeps trying to go about business-as-usual. It was a mass-acknowledgement of the climate crisis, something that has been a long time coming. 

Aside from all of the excitement I felt in  this huge, campus-wide action, I also felt overcome by a sense of fear. People are stepping up like never before, showing those in power– politicians, corrupt corporations, and billionaires– that they cannot continue to exploit our planet for profit. The power of those profiting from fossil fuels is backed by trillions of dollars. Despite the fact that the best interests of everyone on this earth lie in ditching fossil fuels, the essential piece of the puzzle that we as climate activists don’t currently have is the same influence within these institutions that fossil-fuel giants maintain. 

This is a constant internal battle many activists, including myself deal with daily. It’s easy to feel powerless when CEOs, billionaires and politicians in power are benefitting from you feeling that way. This fear, this internal battle, though valid– is dangerous. Powerlessness is the most detrimental attitude to have when fighting the climate crisis, or when fighting for any cause that exists because of the actions of those in power.

After the climate strike, I realized that the base of people who care about the climate crisis is strong, and that this is only the beginning. 

One of the many institutions that are a part of the growing climate crisis is the University of Vermont. UVM prides itself on being a “green school,” since there are some green roofs, LEED certified buildings, a bikeshare program, upon other initiatives funded by the University’s Clean Energy Fund. However, the major elephant in the room is the fact that UVM has part of our massive endowment invested in fossil fuel industries. How could a university be so widely considered “green,” and “sustainable” while simultaneously investing in the very industry that is destroying our planet?

Students have been organizing for around a decade to demand that UVM divests from fossil fuels, that the University pulls our money out of the fossil fuel stocks we keep. Proposals have been shot down year after year; the students who start these movements graduate after 4 years, and the momentum fizzles out like clockwork. This is a good thing for the Board of Trustees and Investment Sub-committee, who ultimately profit from these investments, since all they have to do is wait out those pesky student activists and hope the fire doesn’t spread too quickly the next time around.

Richard Cate, leader of sustainability and climate action at UVM and Vice President of Finance, has been quoted in a recent Vermont Cynic article as saying that “When a student says they’re not going to drive a car anymore and they’re going to ride a bicycle, they’ve actually done something . . . they’re reducing the amount of oil that is needed”.

Individual action is important, but institutional change is vital to limit our global temperature rise to 1.5º Celsius. The University of Vermont prides itself on the individual daily actions students here make each day, like riding bikes (although, most of us don’t have cars anyway). The time for climate action is now, and it’s in the best interests of everyone at UVM, in Burlington, Vermont, and the whole world to make big changes. 

It’s necessary for all students to show the University that they can’t greenwash their way to Princeton Review’s list of “Top green schools” anymore. With an estimated 38.8 million dollars invested in fossil fuels by UVM in 2013 (It’s not been disclosed  the exact amount we are invested today, but that’s likely intentional), this ranking is inaccurate. No matter how many initiatives taken, expecting returns from the very industry that is killing the planet we all share is nothing short of hypocritical. Universities like Pitzer University, the entire University of California system, and even fellow Vermonters Middlebury College and Sterling College have successfully divested already.

A new club on campus called Organize is tackling the issue of fossil fuel divestment, and will be present at the October 25th-26th Board of Trustees meeting. The day that the divestment proposal will be discussed is not yet known, but Organize’s presence will be acknowledged regardless. If the proposal is accepted, it will be a monumental moment in UVM’s history, but a necessary one, as it’s been a long time coming that this university put their money where their mouth is. If the proposal is rejected, we will not rest. There is no time to rest. 

Every movement needs to start somewhere, and rejection of this proposal, if it happens, will only drive us. Climate action cannot wait, and neither can we. With 4 years until every undergraduate at this university has graduated, we need to act now. We need to show UVM that they will not lead us to complacency. If rejection awaits us at this board meeting, direct action will ensue. Not before, however, this month we attempt to go through the process of proposing a well-written proposal while being as diplomatic as possible in the face of crisis. We are, however, in the face of crisis. We cannot afford to take our time as a student body or global population. 

Student power and mobilization can manifest in a variety of ways. Right now, Organize has a few student leaders and some dedicated members. However, if everyone who attended the climate strike were involved, our demands for tangible change from our university would be so much more powerful.

We will be powerless– if we keep telling ourselves that. Every movement starts from a little burst of passion and confidence. Big polluters, corrupt governments, billionaires, and corporations want us to be complacent, and they want us to think individual action is enough. The University of Vermont’s administration doesn’t want to be held accountable for their irresponsible and unsustainable investments, and they want us to feel powerless.
Climate change is the most urgent crisis of our era. If we want true change, it has to come from change in the institutions perpetuating and funding fossil fuels and the escalation of climate change. The only way to stop these institutions is by mass-mobilization. Without feeling powerful, it is impossible to be powerful. Without confidence in our power, it is impossible to truly be influential within institutions who benefit from our cowardice. 

At this point, it’s not a numbers game; we have the numbers among us, but we must be dedicated and willing to step up to the plate and demand tangible action. 

Follow Organize on instagram @organizeuvm and sign the divestment petition (if you’re affiliated with UVM) at go.uvm.edu/divest