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UNM Should Divest Fossils

UNM Should Divest Fossils

UNM’s investment advisors are hanging on to the out-of-date belief that fossil fuels’ future as an energy source is bright. And buggy whip and livery stable stocks will rebound soon, too.

AirPollution-1It was simply coincidental, but the timing of the publication of the powerful statement from Pope Francis on Climate Change makes the UNM Board of Regents’ refusal in June to get rid of the university’s investments in fossil fuels seem even weaker and more wrong-headed than it appeared at first glance.

I accompanied Tom Sullivan of 350.org when he made his presentation to the regents’ finance and facilities committee. Sullivan’s organization has led the initiative in New Mexico to persuade the university to divest itself of the handful of oil, coal and gas stocks that the UNM Foundation owns, which actually make up less than five percent of its entire investment portfolio.

Sullivan’s environmental group has successfully led divestment campaigns on a couple of dozen college and university campuses in the U.S., most recently at Stanford. It hoped that the thousands of signatures it had gathered on a petition might sway UNM to follow suit. Sullivan’s case was clear and well-documented: Fossil fuel companies under-perform the rest of the stock exchange, so getting rid of them would improve, not hurt, the revenue stream the university looks for from its investments.

In fact, since the regents opted to hang on to their oil and gas stocks, those investments’ value has dropped on news of the continuing market glut and depressed prices. So it wasn’t a smart choice the regents made in the short run. Longer term, it looks even worse. Stubbornly, UNM’s investment advisors are hanging on to the out-of-date belief that fossil fuels’ future as an energy source is bright. And buggy whip and livery stable stocks will rebound soon, too.

But Sullivan and 350.org were not banging their heads against the immovable object that the UNM Foundation and regents proved to be just out of concern to maximize the university’s investment revenue. They were hoping for an unequivocal statement on man-made climate change from the flagship academic institution in our state.

Since 99 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that fossil fuel use has to be reduced if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophe, it wasn’t far-fetched to believe that UNM, which bills itself as a nationally recognized scientific research institution, would be eager to make a public, dramatic gesture that would put it firmly on the side of state-of-the-art information on atmospheric contamination from burning coal, petroleum and gas.

And it was right after UNM’s refusal to make that stand that Pope Francis’ newest encyclical came out. It is a clarion call for making precisely the type of change in our thinking about the environment, energy and the economy that 350.org was asking of the regents. It is not a doomsday document. Rather, it is filled with the same type of optimism and joy that his previous letters have reflected.

But it cannot be misunderstood: Short-term decisions made with only the corporate profit margin in mind can no longer be tolerated. The consequences are too drastic: our civilization hangs in the balance.

The Pope has been strongly attacked for his position. Fox network talking heads are going as far as calling him a Marxist. Republican candidates and congressional leaders are making preposterous attempts at defending “Saint” Adam Smith from the Pope’s efforts at excommunicating that failed prophet of the “invisible hand of the marketplace.”

The U.S. Catholic hierarchy, accustomed as they are to knee-jerk alliances with the GOP over bedroom morality legislation and with wealthy bankers and financial advisors over real estate matters and investments, seem uncertain about where to turn next as the little Argentine Pope overturns the money lenders’ stalls in the Temple.

By simply speaking the truth, Francis has turned the international energy debate on its head. A great many political thinkers are blinking and re-evaluating their positions.

It may be time for the UNM regents to revisit their play-it-safe decision to hitch their wagon to fossil fuel companies. The arc of history (and the moral authority of the Pope) would seem to demand it. When enough of us say “No More!” we will reach a tipping point and the inexorable swing toward catastrophe will be slowed, and hopefully stopped. UNM missed its first opportunity to lead. It should reconsider and make a statement for future generations.

Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a state senator from Albuquerque.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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