Students lead campaign urging NU to divest from fossil fuel use

Brittni McGuire, president of Sustain UNL, poses for a picture at the Nebraska Union on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are kicking off a campaign to urge the University of Nebraska system to rid of their investments in fossil fuels in an effort to combat climate change.

Sustain UNL and the Environmental and Agricultural Law Society are leading a collaborative campaign for students, faculty, staff and the community that will push the NU system to consider removing all investments in fossil fuels from its budget. Doing so would involve the university in combating the growing climate crisis, according to Sustain UNL president and junior fisheries and wildlife major Brittni McGuire.

“There is no time to wait anymore — the climate crisis is here,” McGuire said. “We have to take actions to the scale of this crisis. Otherwise, it’s not looking good for us in the future.”

The campaign is in its very beginning stages. It will begin by educating the UNL campus that divestment can be immediate and have an impact against climate change, according to McGuire. She said the campaign will begin tabling around campus, distributing a petition to urge university officials to act and meeting with faculty and other registered student organizations to receive endorsements in the coming weeks.

“Climate change is going to affect all of us, so we need this to be something that unites our whole campus together and pushes for this big change,” she said. “We have work for [students] to do on this campaign if they want to help.”

Seth Keith, a second-year law student and member of the Environmental and Agricultural Law Society, said the campaign is about putting words to action and that decisions like moving away from fossils fuels are rooted in policy change. The law students at UNL were therefore poised to help and get involved, he said.

The campaign met with the University of Nebraska Foundation earlier this year to see if the foundation would be willing to work toward sustainability. Keith said that while the commitment was not yet given, the campaign hopes to hear an answer from the foundation by March on whether or not they intend to work toward divestment.

In 2019, Doane University became the first school in Nebraska to commit to working toward divesting from fossil fuels. Creighton University students were inspired to follow in their footsteps but their president rejected the decision. UNL students are hoping to join Doane in divestment after being inspired by the past efforts of other college students in Nebraska.

Keith said the campaign hopes for a commitment toward divestment beyond university officials solely saying they will work toward sustainability.

“We just want them to take that money out of the fossil fuel industry,” Keith said. “We’re ready to applaud them in that and we are ready to condemn them in a ‘No.’”

Keith and McGuire said they hope to also meet with Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Ted Carter to have conversations about divestment.

At a student forum for UNL students during Carter’s vetting period, McGuire asked Carter his views on climate change and divestment. She said she was surprised and excited to have a leader actually say “climate change” and commit to looking into what was best for the NU system.

“It’s just so encouraging knowing ... that he’s ready to advocate for [action],” she said. “We’re going to look to try to get a meeting with him to say, ‘Hey, if you’re working from up there, we’re working from down here.’”

Carter said the NU system has to be smart and open to ideas, and he said he will look for where it makes sense to instill changes.

“We’re hearing them, and the passion for what they care about is something that’s not generational,” Carter said. “This isn’t something that’s going away. This is something that’s important to them and we should acknowledge that this is an important topic to have. This is not just a Nebraska thing — this is across our entire nation.”

McGuire and Keith said they both plan to speak at upcoming Board of Regents meetings and testify on why they feel divestment would be smart for the NU system. They said they will testify at the meeting on Friday, Feb. 7 and hope to have as many students as possible go and support.

Board of Regents chairman Tim Clare said it takes courage to speak at meetings and the board has a duty and responsibility to listen to them speak. 

“To get up and speak in front of, whether it be our board, city council, the legislative committees, you’ve got to be passionate about it, and we have to listen to it,” Clare said. “We have to take what they’re saying seriously and we have to seriously analyze, ‘Is this something that we need to focus on?’”

Carter said no decisions have been made, but the system is looking at whether or not divestiture from fossil fuel companies would make sense. Right now, he said the focus is on weighing the decision and trying to understand the right thing to do. 

“It’s not necessarily about revolution; sometimes it’s about evolution,” he said. “We’re going to continue to look at where it makes sense, without doing harm to existing programs and how we finance ourselves so that we can continue to have this conversation.”

The campaign for divestment and a more sustainable future for the NU system is underway and McGuire said she hopes the NU community can unite for climate action.

“To me, one of the ways to solve the climate crisis is to empower the people around you,” she said. “Even if we don’t successfully get the NU system to divest from fossil fuels in the next year, it’s going to inspire and empower so many people on this campus.”