This week, the George Washington University community is celebrating as it joins fellow D.C. area schools in significant action against climate change. Friday, the GW Board of Trustees voted to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuel by 2025.
This decision marks the culmination of seven years of organizing by GW students and aligns with the recommendations from the university’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Responsibility Task Force.
“For nearly a decade, GW students and students across the country have been demanding that our universities take moral leadership and end their support for the fossil fuel industry,” said Jeremy Liskar, member of the student organization Sunrise GW and a student representative on the ESG task force. “Our victory (this week) clearly shows that student organizing has changed the consensus on this issue. GW’s commitment will help move the ball for other institutions to take similar action.”
The task force, established earlier in 2020, included students, faculty, trustees, and alumni. Together they recommended seven commitments to be incorporated into GW’s existing sustainability plan. In addition to divesting from all public and private companies that focus on fossil fuel extraction, they also recommend that the university commits to halting any new direct or indirect investments to businesses that reap the majority of their revenue from fossil fuel, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
“The COVID-19 crisis has served to highlight the enormous impact humans have on the environment and the need for equitable access to healthy natural resources,” the task force wrote in a statement released Monday. “The reduced burning of fossil fuels over the last few months has, in a short time, had a dramatically positive impact on the quality of the air we breathe and our waterways. Simultaneously, the pressures of the pandemic alongside existing environmental, health, and economic disparities have laid bare the need for more inclusive and equitable structures in our institutions and society as a whole.”
GW joins 37 other U.S. educational institutions that have committed to or achieved full divestment, according to Fossil Free, including Planet Forward Consortium schools Middlebury College, SUNY-ESF and the University of Hawaii. Other D.C. area schools are also part of the movement, as Georgetown University made a pledge to divest completely within 10 years in February and American University announced the completion of their full divestment in April. University of Maryland, located just outside of D.C., agreed to a full divestment plan in 2016.
This announcement comes at the culmination of an academic year saturated with advocacy by GW students demanding the university divest its roughly $1.78 billion endowment from businesses that profit from fossil fuel. Currently, less than 3% of the endowment — or around $50 million — comes from fossil fuel investment, according to estimates. However, Meghan Chapple, director of GW’s Office of Sustainability, says divestment is more significant than that number may suggest.
“It’s important because it’s part of a larger movement and it sends a message about climate change … there is significant consensus that climate change is the big, pressing issue of our time,” Chapple said.
The “larger movement” to urge institutions of higher education to commit to fossil fuel divestment began when Unity College became the first to do so in 2012. The same year, the Fossil Free campaign — a branch of 350.org — was founded on student-led action to demand divestment. Fossil Free GW was formed in 2013.
In November 2019, Fossil Free GW announced they were transitioning to Sunrise GW, to become a campus hub for the Sunrise Movement. As a chapter of the national youth-led group, Sunrise GW organized art builds, protests, and petitions on campus urging the university to divest over the course of the 2019-2020 academic year.
“I would like to acknowledge our student leaders who have — as representatives of their generation, of the generation that will inhabit the planet over the next 50 to 100 years, the generation that is going to be the future of this planet — I’d like to acknowledge them for all the work they have done to raise awareness of the importance of climate change to the leadership of the university,” Chapple said.
Two current undergraduate students, Liskar and Jillian Weber, who has been involved in GW sustainability initiatives, were members of the 14-person task force.
“I think the student community can be confident that they were well represented in the voices that Jillian and Jeremy brought to the table,” Chapple said.
Liskar said Sunrise GW is “ecstatic” about the divestment announcement.
Since releasing their recommendations for the university sustainability plan in late May, the ESG task force held two digital town halls, allowing students, staff, faculty, and alumni to provide feedback, and additionally received more than 100 submissions of “overwhelmingly positive” feedback via the task force website.
Divestment strategies have been used in the past to invoke societal change, perhaps most notably in opposition to South African Apartheid. In the mid-1980s, campuses around the world divested from companies doing business in South Africa, ultimately helping to weaken the Apartheid government.
Chapple also drew attention to the university’s pledge to become carbon neutral by offsetting two centuries worth of greenhouse gas emissions dating back to the university’s charter in 1821. While GW had previously aimed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, the university this week committed to an accelerated plan, aiming to reach neutrality by 2030. GW also signed on to plans to go beyond carbon neutrality in honor of the university’s bicentennial next year, a pledge Chapple finds equally significant to that of divestment.
Other additions to the university’s updated sustainability plan include goals to eliminate single-use plastic on campus, increase the amount of greenspace for biodiversity, conserve stormwater, and convert campus transportation to zero-emissions vehicles.