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Is divestment worthwhile?

The Leonardo museum answered "yes" to this question in response to an open letter to museums signed by 150 scientists and Nobel Laureates urging institutions to cut ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

The University of Utah has been debating the issue since 2012 when students brought the question to their student body, and on Monday the faculty in the Academic Senate will vote on it. Some faculty carry a misconception that this will financially wreck the university.

The truth is that the cost to the endowment is relatively small and in the long term it could be revenue positive. This will not directly cut any scholarships and research money coming from the fossil fuel industry and it does not prohibit charitable donations from the fossil fuel industry. In fact, as a matter of reparations for climate change and for obfuscating climate science, if the industry is serious about supporting a transition to renewables, they should donate more research money.

The president of the Academic Senate said that if he thought divestment worked, he would vote for it. Unfortunately, he is an engineer and is evaluating linearly. He is right that divestment will not directly reduce carbon emissions.

A similar misconception was levied at Mahatma Gandhi about whether the Salt March of 1930 would work. The British Empire and even close allies initially viewed Gandhi's strategy as preposterous, symbolic and misguided. What the critics and those in decision-making positions failed to realize is that this campaign was not targeting the mechanics of British rule around constitutional questions like winning "dominion status."

The Salt Satyagraha goal was to alter the political climate and to transform the perception of what is possible and politically realistic, not to achieve reforms obtainable in the existing political context. The campaign did not achieve instrumental policy changes, yet Gandhi and many historians cite it as a pivotal success towards liberation. It helped increase support for the Indian National Congress, enhanced legitimacy of the struggle for independence and expanded the tactical arsenal of an organized, militant and unarmed resistance fighting with active non-violence.

The Academic Senate president is similarly aghast about divestment, but as an engineer he is misinformed about the goals of the climate justice movement. One example is that construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline was halted after years of campaigning from a coalition of the unexpected that started with indigenous groups defending sacred land. Many said environmentalists should instead work on policy to concretely reduce greenhouse gasses.

Ultimately, the diverse coalition won and set precedent for saying no to one multinational corporation. This did not alter policy on greenhouse gasses but undeniably altered the U.S. political landscape and changed perceptions of what is possible and politically realistic.

Building momentum off this victory, a diverse international coalition is escalating campaigns for saying no at scale. Fossil-free divestment campaigns are supporting institutions saying no to 200 corporations by divesting their endowments; Keep It In The Ground Campaigns are uniting for BreakFree2016 to disrupt the largest fossil fuel projects in dozens of countries.

Locally, the effort to make the Natural History Museum of Utah divest its fossil-fuel holdings is facing classic rebuttals that ridiculed Gandhi. A New York Times profile on college divestment highlights two critiques: It doesn't work to reduce greenhouse gasses and it won't affect industry bottom line.

Like those dismissing Gandhi, critics of divestment and civil disobedience to keep fossil fuels in the ground reveal common misconceptions. These campaigns aim to change the political landscape, and it's working. Keystone XL was halted and more than 500 institutions, including the Leonardo, have said no to 200 corporations by divesting $3.6 trillion.

Ryan Pleune is Salt Lake City group leader and co-founder of Fossil Free Natural History Museum of Utah. He is a science teacher, bus driver and community organizer.