In the early hours of a warm Thursday morning, Philadelphians woke up to submerged roads, flooded sidewalks, and a brand new canal. What started as a typical late–summer thunderstorm became a billion–dollar disaster and major harbinger of a world, and city, rattled by the effects of climate change. Penn even canceled classes and suspended operations as a result of the unprecedented damage.
Hurricane Ida wasn't the first severe weather event to occur in the area, and it won’t be the last. Over the years, Americans of all stripes have grown increasingly concerned about climate change. In 2021 alone, deadly wildfires and extreme temperatures from Texas to Siberia dominated the news cycle. As a response to these crises, governments have pledged to strengthen their emission goals and companies have shifted to more renewable energy sources. Many universities that invest in these companies are also reconsidering their support for organizations in Big Oil. But among peer institutions, Penn stands out by not fully shifting its funding away from fossil fuel companies. Why have some schools like Harvard and Dartmouth announced plans to divest while Penn has not?
According to student sustainability groups Student Sustainability Association at Penn (SSAP) and Fossil Free Penn (FFP), it’s unclear why Penn is an outlier. Marina Dauer (C ‘22), co–chair of SSAP, says that “Penn [has] unimaginable resources so there’s no reason that we can’t achieve these things.”
The movement behind divestment calls for universities to eliminate funding for corporations involved in fossil fuels and divert it to organizations focused on clean energy. While most universities withhold detailed composition of their investments, it is estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars out of Penn’s $20.5 billion endowment are invested in fossil fuel assets. Advocates for divestment believe that abolishing all funding towards fossil fuel use can lead to lower demand for drilling projects and pipeline installations. Rather than promoting paper straws or reusable containers, divestment is seen as a more substantive, long–term solution.
SSAP’s other co–chair Vyshnavi Kosigi (C ‘22) believes a financial conflict of interest could play a role in Penn’s unwillingness to divest. The current head of Penn’s Board of Trustees, Scott Bok, is chairman and CEO of Greenhill & Co. According to Vyshnavi, Bok's asset management firm works closely with a variety of fossil fuel projects, including ExxonMobil.
While some advocates see limiting fossil fuel funding as an adequate path forward, Sarah Sterinbach (C ‘24), a facilitator for FFP, is a proponent for cutting off ties with fossil fuel companies entirely. Those on the opposite end of the table, though, believe that internal pressure, or “fossil fuel engagement,” can be just as effective as divestment. Sarah, though, wants the University to be “nowhere near” the industry. FFP’s coordinator Ari Bortman (E ‘22) says this also includes not doing research in and preventing students from being funneled into jobs in the sector. In addition to divestment, SSAP has planned a variety of initiatives related to Penn and climate change. Other requests from SSAP include improving Penn’s current environmental curriculum and reducing plastic usage across campus.
While Penn may be lagging on efforts to combat climate change, SSAP and FFP believe that there have been some recent victories in getting support from students, staff, and members of the West Philadelphia community. While SSAP acts as an umbrella organization for thirteen sustainability subgroups, the group and its members have begun to shift away from just being an organizational body and towards student activism.
Vyshnavi believes that Penn students' unique positioning and privilege make them specifically suited and responsible for combatting the climate crisis. “People who have the resources to actually help change the trajectory of the climate crisis were not plugged into the activism part of climate change. These one–off protests we did at the Board of Trustees meetings were not bearing any fruit,” Vyshnavi says. However, “a lot of people at Penn want to be a part of a campaign that is about divestment, justice, and climate.” Due to a prior lack of climate–related events, Vyshnavi and Marina organized Penn Climate Week, which started in the fall of last year. “We hosted a series of events called activist hours which focused on individuals and organizations doing activist work in the West Philadelphia community. We had different themes like agriculture, energy, and voting and how Penn students can break out of the Penn bubble.”
Vyshnavi notes that these events are now more important than ever. “The climate crisis is not taking a break,” she adds.
Even though FFP and SSAP are solely climate–oriented, climate change is an intersectional issue. Environmental racism and environmental classism relate hazards like pollution and pipelines to social factors like poverty and race. Activist groups must work together in order to fight against the wide–ranging consequences of climate change. Sarah mentions FFP’s coalition with other Penn clubs including Police Free Penn and Penn Against the Occupation: “Justice is not just environmental justice or climate justice. We need justice for everyone,” she says.
This rise in climate activism has been acknowledged by the University. Penn now sends out emails informing the Penn community of current progress on the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan (CSAP) 3.0, which lays out detailed environmental ambitions up until 2024. Vyshnavi labels this move as a byproduct of SSAP’s presence on campus. “They didn’t even start sending climate emails to the entire university until SSAP did our first ever forum storm,” she says. In the most recent email sent out in November, Penn announced that they would “thoughtfully incorporate climate change into investment decision making” and that they would “not directly hold investments in companies focused on the production of thermal coal or bituminous (tar) sands.”
While this seems like a step in the right direction, both SSAP and FFP point out the email’s ambiguous wording and minimal commitment to effective change. Ari calls Penn’s language “confusing, long, convoluted, and [unclear]." "It had a very self–congratulatory tone. The verbiage seemed to be very clearly calculated so if they were to hold investments in the future, they wouldn’t have absolutely lied. There was an intentional lack of clarity,” he adds.
In another email sent in April, Penn announced a goal of net–zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through carbon offset. Ari finds this assertion to be problematic. “Carbon offset has been linked to inefficacy and not delivering as promised. The real core of what’s wrong with net–zero by 2050, which is far too late, is that it only covers scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. [Penn] specifically and pointedly [excluded] scope 3 emissions, which are an enormous percentage of global emissions.” While scope 1 and 2 emissions are emissions generated by an organization, scope 3 emissions encompass indirect sources linked to that company such as employee commuting and transportation of goods. Thus, “a vast majority of fossil fuels are not counted under the net–zero plan.”
If there’s such a disparity between students and the administration, how do FFP and SSAP envision communication between the groups in the future? Sarah proposes democratization, saying that “It’s important that our voices are heard — community voices are heard and not just the wealthy Board of Trustee members.” Adding to Sarah’s point, Ari imagines “student representation and community representation on the Board of Trustees,” as well as “direct election” of the board. FFP has conducted high–profile protests before, including one where 100 members shut down a board meeting in 2019.
Despite their protests, the University still fails to listen to their demands. “When the student comes to you with a huge concern, listen and implement change,” Sarah says.
Transparency is also key for SSAP, whose open forum storms give students the opportunity to speak directly to powerful Penn leaders like Amy Gutmann. SSAP’s approach to advocacy is what Vyshnavi calls “practivism” and a key differentiator of SSAP’s divestment plan. SSAP “toes the line between aggressive activism and keeping a channel open.” Even still, Vyshnavi and Marina believe much more can be accomplished in the fight against climate change.
Throughout the pandemic, SSAP and FFP had to shift their activism from in–person programming to virtual events, leading to what Ari described as more “behind the scenes” planning which did “hurt the efficacy.” However, now that on–campus activities are slowly returning to normal, both student groups are back and more galvanized than ever to continue the fight for divestment.
“Penn, get ready,” says Sarah. “We’re making our voices heard.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Vyshnavi Kosigi was referred to using the incorrect pronouns. The piece has since been updated with the correct pronouns. Street regrets this error.