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Open Letter to the UW-Madison Faculty Senate on Climate Change and Supporting Divestment

The UW Foundation handles incoming donations, and invests them into a variety of stock. The divestment campaign is asking the UW Foundation to take their money out of stock in fossil fuels. In 2013, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee hosted forums for the students and public to participate in a discussion on whether or not the university should divest form fossil fuels. The Senate Committee will be deciding whether or not the faculty will be supporting the University in a move toward divestment. Many professors on the committee are leading climate scientists. This letter was formed from a collaborative effort from a variety of orgs on campus that participate in the Fossil Free UW Coalition, a student movement which strives for a cleaner, greener, UW. 


Dear Members of the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment,
We are writing to you to thank you for hosting the public forums on climate change and for taking an honest and sincere consideration of the topic of divestment. We all understand the gravity and the burden of climate change, and that coming together to face these issues is the first step towards solving them. Our group, Fossil Free UW coalition, was formed for this very reason: To work towards solving the problems of climate change through collective community action. Fossil Free UW is a coalition of Registered Student Organizations at UW Madison working with other campaigns across the country to help universities divest their endowment funds from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Our goal is for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to support the UW Foundation in an immediate freeze on any new investments in fossil fuels and to commit to completely divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years.  Your forums provided us a space to recognize that divestment brings up many questions and concerns, and we want to do our best to understand and articulate how these concerns might be mitigated.  We hope to address some of your concerns by answering these main questions:  why divest?, why is divestment good for the university?, what does it mean if we do not divest?, and what would it mean if we were to divest?

The reasoning behind divestment is simple. We are morally and ethically obliged to stop promoting the crisis of climate change. The UW Foundation “guarantees ethical stewardship of gifts received” while hypocritically maintaining investments in the source and cause of climate change. We know that mitigating climate change  must come with decreased fossil fuel production, and yet we are laying our wagers on the growth of fossil fuel companies, which comes only from the increased production of fossil fuels.
We cannot responsibly nor accurately guarantee the “ethical stewardship of gifts received” when we are directly supporting growth in an industry which degrades our vital natural resources, diminishes health, and preys on the livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable, nor can we be rightfully prideful of our mission statement “to help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all”.
Instead of validating the presence and actions of the fossil fuel industry in these matters by being silent,  divestment is our national voice against actions we find morally and ethically reprehensible. We must break the silence that the way the fossil fuel industries have handled our futures, and our childrens futures, is acceptable. From the funded smear campaign of climate science knowledge, to the budget efficiencies at the risk of millions of civilians that caused the BP oil spill, we are making a claim that the fossil fuel industries are not good stewards of our future and we will fail to support them until they are. We hope breaking the silence will help others to break the silence with us, ideally providing the social pressure and support for fear-paralyzed decision-makers to take truly meaningful action in addressing the climate crisis.
We understand the reluctance and fear of stepping out and having a voice. We understand this comes with risk of criticism. Most importantly, we understand the worry that the Foundation might lose donors if we take action. However, loss of donors is not an inevitable consequence of divestment. As implied to us in person by UW Foundation President Knetter, this concern would lessen if the University shows broad support for divestment and, in doing so, commits to uphold its mission and the Wisconsin Idea. We are working on a campaign among students and alumni to donate the the university on the condition that the university divests. We have been ecstatic at how vibrantly people have received this message and jumped to action. We will provide both social and financial support for the University to take actions that are socially and morally responsible. We are all in this together, and we will actively work to show the Foundation that the Madison community and student body will support and applaud their decision if they divest.  
The topic of divestment is not a question of if, but when. Whether the impetus for change will come first from the financial collapse of markets attempting to make profits off of a receding available supply, or from a social demand to stop the destruction of our planet, the change will happen. The true question is whether we as a society can bolster the political will to make those vital decisions fast enough to avoid far surpassing dangerous climatic thresholds. The longer we wait, the worse and more expensive the consequences will be, financially and socially.
We want to remind you that to stay silent is not to stay out of it. Silence is as much of a stance on the issue of climate as voicing an opinion. So we ask you, what message does the University send to its students, and to society, when it condones business-as-usual and profits from the industry that is unequivocally the source of polluted drinking water, toxic air, unlivable landscapes, and increasingly severe climate disruption?

It’s time we put our money where our mouth is and disentangle ourselves from the cowardice of research etiquette. We have the pivotal opportunity to lead the nation on an issue of unequivocal importance. We want this University to stand on the right side of history. As students of UW-Madison, who care about the success of the institution, who believe in its ability to stand out as a leader in uncertain times, and who intimately know the burden and challenge of climate change that our generation uniquely faces, we ask you, as students, as children, and as fellow humans to consider divestment from fossil fuels as a smart, responsible, and ethical step in the direction of a sustainable future.
Fossil Free UW Student Coalition


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