It was a message and a reminder.
“Hey Jim Ryan, the planet’s dying!” chanted dozens of University of Virginia students as they marched across Grounds Friday afternoon, waving and flourishing homemade signs on their way from the Rotunda to UVa’s heating plant.
The march was held to both celebrate Earth Day and protest of UVa’s decision to not drop all of its fossil fuel investments and was led by DivestUVA, a student group that wants the school make greater commitments to help mitigate the climate crisis.
“We had a really great turnout and, honestly, we’re just glad to kind of foster community here around this,” said Maille Bowerman, an organizer with DivestUVA.
In March, the UVa Investment Management Company announced a new framework for making responsible investments that takes some steps toward more sustainability, including a commitment to align its investment portfolio to net-zero greenhouse emissions by the year 2050, if not sooner.
However, the management company has decided not to fully divest from fossil fuels.
The management company provides investment management services to UVa and associated organizations by investing the endowment and other long-term funds of UVa and associated organizations.
Currently, fewer than about 0.05% of the company’s investments are directly in fossil fuels. DivestUVA want to see that number down to zero.
DivestUVA has a list of demands for both UVa and the city of Charlottesville including conducting research to understand climate change impacts on communities of color and a climate-focused zoning code.
The students were joined on their march by other members of the community, including Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne.
“There’s been a movement for years for UVa to divest from fossil fuels and just look at the reality of climate science for institutions, including UVa, including the city of Charlottesville,” said Payne, who has been one of the most vocal members of City Council when it comes to climate reform. “I think it’s just something that the university and the city have to take action on,”
Earlier this week, City Council and staff discussed forming the city’s climate action plan. Payne said he takes the students’ demands of the city seriously and he wants to see more action from the city.
“We had a presentation but we really need deliverables and timelines and money behind it,” Payne said.
Following the march, the students gathered in the park next to UVa’s heat plant where the George Rogers Clark statue once stood. Students and community speakers addressed the group, discussing next steps for activism.
Jacqueline Kim, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Collective at UVa, spoke about the impact climate change disproportionately has on communities of color.
“We must understand the harms committed by the fossil fuel industry within the context of greater systems of violence,” Kim said.
Victoria Thompson, a second year environmental science student, read a poem she wrote about her anxiety over the climate crisis.
“As an environmental science major, I’m pretty aware of everything that’s going on and it can really mount to a kind of insane pressure. I feel like it’s just a culmination of all these events that motivated me to write that and speak today,” Thompson said.
Zac Russell, a fourth year student and president of the Native American Student Union at UVa, passed the demonstration and asked the organizers if he could give some remarks to the crowd. Russell, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, said he was proud to see the area where the George Rogers Clark statue stood reclaimed.
“If we keep going like this, we won’t survive. Seeing people crying out, saying this is our Earth, there’s no planet B, in this space, is powerful,” Russell said. “It’s beautiful and I thought this represents exactly the kind of values that honor indigenous people. Indigenous people are really disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, as are many communities of color.”
DivestUVA wants to expand its focus beyond divestment and to advocate changes for the university.
“We’re planning on structuring DivestUVA to be something that addresses not just divesting from fossil fuels, but looking at other ways we can stop or mitigate environmental injustice,” said Aayusha Khanal, with DivestUVA.