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Students Push University of Washington Regents to Dump Coal

caption: Student activists Angela Feng, Sarra Tekola and Alex Lenferna of Divest UW appear before the UW Board of Regents on Thursday to urge the university to get rid of its coal investments..
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1 of 2 Student activists Angela Feng, Sarra Tekola and Alex Lenferna of Divest UW appear before the UW Board of Regents on Thursday to urge the university to get rid of its coal investments..
KUOW photo/John Ryan

Student activists at the University of Washington urged the Board of Regents on Thursday to dump the university's investments in coal.

Coal is the leading source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are disrupting the planet's climate.

Graduate student Alex Lenferna with Divest UW also blamed the coal industry for government inaction on the climate.

"This is due to the coal industry and its allies spending of billions of dollars spreading misinformation and corrupting the democratic process in order to protect their profits over the well-being and health of billions of people and the future of the planet," Lenferna told the regents at a meeting at University of Washington-Bothell.

Lenferna is a Fulbright scholar from South Africa working on a Ph.D. on the ethics of climate change.

"As shareholders politely request a corrupt industry to change, and it responds with corruption and misinformation, the death toll rises, greenhouse gases increase, and the rising seas get closer to the doorsteps of a home on the island of Mauritius, where my grandfather lives and whose suit I wear today."

Lenferna said the coal industry is largely using tactics of the tobacco industry, which UW divested from in 2000.

"In the face of similar immoral behavior, why would the UW continue to invest in the most harmful industry in the world?" he asked.

The regents had little reaction to Divest UW's proposal for the university to sell off stocks of companies whose primary business is coal mining. Only one of the seven regents attending the meeting asked the students any questions after their presentation.

Regent Kristianne Gates Blake – a UW alumna and sister of Microsoft founder Bill Gates – asked if it would be better to try to influence coal companies as shareholders.

"I've sort of always been a believer in trying to be part of the group and make change from within," she said.

"Essentially with shareholder engagement and coal companies, we're asking them not to be coal companies, and that doesn't really make sense," UW senior Sarra Tekola replied.

The undergraduate and graduate student Senates at UW have both passed resolutions supporting divestment.

UW Faculty Senate President Kate O'Neill said she supported the students' efforts.

"It [took] many little steps by many powerful institutions to bring down apartheid, to force the tobacco companies to come to the table and pay for some of damages they caused," she said.

The University of Washington's endowment is currently worth $2.9 billion, according to university officials. About $3 million is invested in coal companies.

The Divest UW activists hope the regents will vote at their next regular meeting in May on whether to divest from coal.

Nationwide, 16 colleges and universities have committed to divesting from coal and other fossil fuels.

Seattle University, Western Washington University and 16 other schools have rejected calls from their students to do so.

Seattle University officials said divesting would not affect the finances or the behavior of energy companies.

Last month, students at Western staged a fake oil spill on campus to protest their administration's decision.

Critics of the divestment movement say it can only have symbolic impacts as energy consumption continues to rise.

"Divestment does nothing to affect the demand for or use of fossil fuels," according to the World Coal Association.

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