Letter to the Editor: USC is not meaningfully addressing sustainability

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging there is one. That is why at the end of last semester, we, the Environmental Student Assembly and the USC Environmental Core, authored a letter to President Carol Folt asking for public disclosure of the University’s endowment investments into the energy sector, and in particular, fossil fuels. As of Jan. 13, we have yet to receive a response. 

The fossil fuel industrial complex primarily includes the petroleum, natural gas and coal industries that combine to account for about 76% of U.S. human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. These greenhouse gas emissions, according to overwhelming scientific consensus, are responsible for the increased frequency and severity of environmental disasters, such as the recent fires in Australia that have already killed at least 28 people, which ecologists fear may result in the extinction of multiple species of animals. These fires, coupled with a recent study that found melting permafrost in the Arctic is emitting double the greenhouse gases scientists previously estimated (1.7 billion tonnes of carbon, as much per year as Japan), have again spelt death for our environment, and calls for drastic and fast action by all institutions, USC included. 

Since Folt has taken office, she has demonstrated an admirable ambition toward solving the climate crisis. She has expanded the transit subsidy, fought for zero-waste tailgates and has backed projects aimed at reducing the University’s carbon footprint. While these efforts are necessary to adequately address the crisis, they are not sufficient. The University still refuses to grapple with the carbon footprint of its $5.54 billion endowment, having refused to respond to our letter from Dec. 10 or any of our previous phone calls to the investment office about fossil fuel investments. 

Even if the University were to reach zero-carbon emissions on campus, it would be fairly meaningless if the goal were reached through something like a solar power purchase agreement paid for with the returns off our investments into the sustained growth of carbon-intensive energy. It would be redundant and performative, like “cleaning” a dirty surface with an even dirtier rag. 

 It is important to note that endowment reform doesn’t mean sacrificing the economic salience of our University in favor of activist investments. By virtue of verifiably destroying our shared natural resources, the fossil fuel industry is financially unsustainable and thus is an incredibly risky investment. This is why the University of California system’s endowment went “fossil-free” in September. Investors and fiduciaries of UC’s endowment sold $150 million in fossil fuel assets from their endowment because they posed a long-term risk to generate strong returns for UC’s diversified portfolios, according to a September op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, . 

For these reasons, we again call on the University to disclose its energy investments so that we can begin to have a meaningful conversation about how to actually reduce our carbon footprint. Once disclosed, we call for the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry; then, most importantly, reinvest. Not only does divestment from destructive and financially risky fossil fuel investments assist in reducing the economic viability of energy companies profiting off of the destruction of our planet, it provides the University with a treasure chest of investments in profitable energy and carbon-capture equities that can fight climate change. 

Join us in delivering our message to the University on Monday, Jan. 27 at 3 p.m. at Hahn Plaza for a Climate Strike focused on USC’s disclosure, divestment and reinvestment of its fossil fuel investments. 

Nathaniel Hyman: Co-Executive Director, Environmental Student Assembly, Tianna Shaw-Wakeman: Representative, USC Environmental Core