As visiting high school seniors and their parents climbed the steps of College Hall on Nov. 10, 2016, they were taken aback by a sight they didn’t expect to see during their college tour. Around 30 students scattered across the floor of the lobby, quietly working on their laptops, passing snacks and occasionally singing songs. Beside them lay neon posters with slogans like “People Over Profit” and “Make Penn Fossil Free."
Though this was the first sit–in on campus since 2000, the prospective students witnessed the increasing activism on campus and the group that has laid the foundation for demonstration in recent years, Fossil Free Penn (FFP).
“Obviously we all see this university is an amazing place and has many benefits for us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of it at the same time,” Rita Wegner (C’18), FFP’s campaign coordinator, said. “It’s evident that climate change exacerbates all environmental issues, and if we don’t stop it now it will be too late.”
The group believes one of the most effective stands the university can make against climate change is divesting their endowment from fossil fuel companies.
“Studies have shown that our role as an investor is way more significant than our role as a consumer,” said Zach Rissman (C’19), a student outreach coordinator. “We believe the most effective way to make an impact is to divest.”
Since the group formed in 2014, FFP has urged the University of Pennsylvania to “freeze any new investment in the fossil-fuel companies and divest within five years from direct ownership from any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds,” according to the group’s Facebook page.
The group has established a full force campaign that uses members’ diverse skills to reach out to alumni and faculty, create multimedia, organize events and write a 40 plus page proposal. Their hard work, however, has not always been rewarded. This year brings along new challenges, as our president now denies the existence of climate change. Since coming into office, President Donald Trump has chosen people linked to the fossil fuel industry for senior positions in his administration and has told the Environmental Protection Agency to remove mention from climate change from their website.
“After Nov. 8, it would have been easy to say, 'We are fucked,'” and give up,” Rissman said. Yet, Fossil Free Penn keeps on fighting, and like other groups around the nation, they are louder than ever.
“The setbacks we have faced in the past year due to administrative decisions and political ones have affected how we run the campaign. I think we have taken a more action–oriented, more confrontational tone when necessary because traditional methods of activism that were very focus on just raising support for our cause weren't exactly working,” Peter Thacher (C’16) said.
Thacher, who now serves as faculty coordinator, was one of the founding members of the group, which formed after the People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014. They first focused on building awareness for their cause and asking students to vote in a referendum by tabling and dorm storming across campus. By February 2015, they garnered support of 87.8 percent of voting students for divestment and were able to move forward in the campaign.
Yet, this past September, the trustees rejected the referendum, a faculty letter with 108 signatures, petitions from alumni, cited research and FFP’s proposal to divest on the basis that fossil fuel companies did not constitute their “interpretation of moral evil as an activity on par with apartheid or genocide.”
“It definitely was a shock. We didn’t know the trustees were meeting about it that day, so we weren't expecting a decision, let alone a rejection,” Thacher said. “I think we knew the campus was on our side, and that opinion needed to be respected based on the damage climate change is doing. I don’t think anyone in the group thought it would be over after that.” While other clubs were passing out candy, for Halloween FFP lined Locust Walk with tombstones displaying grim climate change statistics. Two days after the presidential election, they sat in College Hall for hours demanding a meeting with President Amy Gutmann.
“By the end, the group did earn a meeting with Amy Gutmann and David Cohen [Chair of the Trustees]. It was less of a, ‘We hear you,’ but more of a, ‘We want to appease so you don’t sit here anymore,’ “ Rissman said. “It was basically hammered home that climate change is an issue, but we may disagree on how pressing of an issue it is and how best to solve it.”
FFP is not alone in their thinking. They are a part of an international movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry. In January, Ireland voted to divest public money from fossil fuels and various national colleges have divested from a sort of fossil fuels. Penn itself has used divestment to make a statement, Rissman said, as the University divested from South Africa during apartheid.
Divestment campaigns last anywhere from seven to nine years and go through several rejections, Rissman said. Not planning to stop until the school divests, the group aims to escalate their support and presence on campus in the semesters ahead. They started the year off by hanging posters decrying Trump and fossil fuels in Huntsman Hall and from the outside of College Hall.
“With Trump’s election, on a national scale the same thing is happening. Obama wasn’t always great on climate policy, but he was open to be pushed to make changes whereas Trump is not open to dialogue about the climate movement,” Thacher said. “There is going to be a much larger need for confrontation with the current government than there was under Obama.”
Rissman said current events have created a crucial dilemma. On one hand, more people are taking to the streets to demonstrate, but on the other hand, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of issues to tackle. Yet the group has long considered climate change to be an intersectional issue, and they strive to collaborate with various student groups to accomplish their goals.
“You can either wallow in your self–pity, or you can think about how everyone else has it way worse. Like for example: me, I don’t have to worry about getting an abortion, I don’t have to worry about the Muslim ban. So, I'm sitting there thinking if I don't do anything I won’t get hurt, but everyone else will so I think it’s selfish to give up,” Rissman said. “We are global society and you can't just think about yourself. It’s not just about me and that's what keeps me going.”
Photos courtesy of Fossil Free Penn.