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UM freezes fossil fuel investments, studies its policy

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan is freezing its investment in fossil fuel companies as it examines its investment policy, a step that local environmental activists have been pushing the university toward for years.

UM Regent Mark Bernstein announced the move during the regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, bringing thunderous applause as the decision was hailed by students, faculty and community members.

"We have a responsibility to do everything we can to disrupt the flow of carbon into the atmosphere," Bernstein said after the meeting. "This requires disrupting the flow of money to the fossil fuel industry."

Bernstein said the fossil fuel industry has in its reserves five times as much carbon as the scientific consensus thinks can safely be burned, and alternatives need to be found.

"We need to stop paying for our own destruction," Bernstein said. "Climate change is an existential threat to human life. Everything we do at the University of Michigan — all our teaching, research and scholarship — is wasted if this planet is inhabitable."

Activists at UM, who have been lobbying the university for years to completely divest in companies linked to climate change, said the move was important but the university needs to go further..

"While this is a major victory for the fossil fuel divestment movement, it is only the first step," said a statement issued by the The Climate Action Movement at UM, a coalition of UM students, staff, faculty, alumni and Ann Arbor community members. 

"It is not enough to refrain from making additional investments — the University must commit to divest the $1 billion it currently has invested in the fossil fuel industry. This must happen urgently, and we publicly call on the Regents to commit to full divestment and begin withdrawals by Earth Day 2020 (April 22nd)."

Bernstein said review of all fossil fuels investments would be done in a "deliberative, thorough, inclusive and responsible manner."

"We will proceed with this assessment as quickly as possible, and plan to take any appropriate actions in the months ahead," Bernstein said.

The announcement comes as the UM President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, created in 2019, works toward recommendations for achieving carbon neutrality at its three campuses, Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint. By fall, the commission is expected to issue a final report.

Many spoke about the policy during the public comment period of the meeting.

Among them was Laura VanKoughnett, a UM student and member of the university's Climate Action Movement. 

"While we are thrilled about this announcement of freezing all fossil fuel investments, we still ask for a public timeline for divestment," said VanKoughnett. "Investment officers at other schools have come to the conclusion that divestment and reinvestment is not only the morally sound choice but financially expedient."

She said that many schools have completely divested in fossil fuels companies including Georgetown, Oregon State University, Syracuse University, University of California and University of Maryland.

"Why haven't we done anything yet?" VanKoughnett said. "We are in a critical movement in the fight for our future and the world is moving forward without us. It is your job to move us forward."

UM has divested twice, from South African and from tobacco companies decades ago, according to spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com