Article by Anthony Torres, Audrey Irvine-Broque, & Nick Guthman
Last week, AU released a statement entitled: “American University Achieves Energy Milestone,” promoting their partnership with Duke Energy to source 50% of American University’s power from solar energy in order to “contribute to the fight against climate change.” However, this type of partnership with a top fossil fuel company is exactly the type of action we don’t need and contradicts any claim to the fight for climate justice. When this deal was announced in 2014, Fossil Free AU released a statement with a simple question: if we know fossil fuels are causing the crisis, why invest in them? Now, more than ever, we must address these claims head on, and demand our University commit to real change, not corporate greenwashing.
The Administration’s praise of a partnership with Duke Energy is a deliberate attempt to avoid taking real action for climate justice, while passing the buck on the type of bold leadership we need. As students, we refuse to be placated by such distortions, when we know that Duke’s vision for the future stands in stark contrast to the action necessary for a just and livable climate. Already the third largest carbon emitter in the United States, Duke Energy continues to derive half of its coal from mountaintop removal and owns 10 of the EPA’s 44 most hazardous coal ash sites. As a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, Duke Energy spends $3 million every year lobbying state legislatures against bills that address climate change. Meanwhile, Duke has made little effort to develop a renewable energy portfolio, as renewables make up a meager 0.5% of its total energy production. As long as fossil fuel extraction can produce a profit, Duke will not remove itself from our crash course to climate chaos – nor admit its hand in the crisis. Rather than heeding students’ calls to remove our own investments from this dirty industry, AU is partnering with a fossil fuel corporation that thrives on extraction and profits off climate destruction.
But this isn’t just about carbon — this is about an industry built on injustice and extraction from poor communities and communities of color. In recent years, Duke Energy has been fined by the state of North Carolina for dumping coal ash into its rivers, primarily in majority black communities. Meanwhile, they continue to use their profits to influence politics in North Carolina, including former Duke Energy Executive and current Governor Pat McCrory, currently in the hot seat for supporting HB2 and other legislation that has gutted protections for working people in North Carolina. Duke’s tactics to maintain profit and pollution with impunity are not news for those on the frontlines of extraction – be they in First Nation’s territories in Canada, communities of color in Richmond, California, or in North Carolina, considered the birthplace of the Environmental Justice movement. To work with Duke Energy is in direct conflict with this University’s commitment to social justice, and perpetuates an “environmentalism” that looks the other way when poor people and people of color are hurt by its “solutions.”
Duke Energy’s erosion of our futures speaks to what we’ve known to be true: we can’t expect those who dug us into this mess in the first place to dig us out of it. The climate culprits will not be the ones to solve the climate crisis, and that means that we must take an active role in articulating the the solutions we need. While the University markets this “energy milestone,” we, as students, must continue to hold the decision makers accountable for actually investing in our futures. For as long as our University invests in fossil fuels and profits off an industry that violently reproduces social injustice, carbon neutrality remains unachievable. Just this week, both Yale and University of Mary Washington announced plans to divest, while Peabody Coal, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, declared bankruptcy. Divestment from the industry driving climate change would show true institutional leadership, and is the kind of bold action needed to combat the biggest threat to a just and livable future. Rather than greenwash the fossil fuel industry, we need to reimagine a just transition towards an economy that works for people and planet.
The fight for climate justice calls for real solutions that divest from a corporate ideology and reinvest in a transition away from fossil fuels. It calls for investments that prioritize justice not in-name-only, but through structural and material solutions, led by those who are on the frontlines of crisis. While we applaud AU’s desire to engage in the fight against climate change, we call on the Board of Trustees to restore their moral license and demonstrate real climate leadership by promoting a path to fossil fuel divestment rather than uplifting false “milestones” on a road to nowhere.
OH, and while we’re at it: In light of such an egregious and short-sighted partnership, it was fascinating to find that AU’s former Director of Sustainability, Chris O’Brien, left AU to work for the company that devised this corporate contract, just months after sealing this dirty deal AU.