As CU Boulder hosts climate activists from across the world, some students protest its financial ties to fossil fuels

Miguel Otárola/CPR News
Student protesters hoist a puppet “administrator” in front of the University of Colorado Boulder’s earth sciences building on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

Dozens of University of Colorado Boulder students marched across campus Friday during the second day of a conference on climate change, demanding the university end its financial investments in fossil fuel companies.

Climate activists from across the world are in Boulder this weekend for the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit, a series of panels and presentations on the impact of climate change on human rights. 

After Friday morning’s panel, students clad in orange beanies bearing the word “DIVEST” gathered in a courtyard along with other climate activists. They marched and chanted under the banner “Fossil Free CU,” with some saying the school was hypocritical for pushing for climate justice while continuing to invest in a sector responsible for much of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“CU sends out a very clear message about where their priorities lie when they continue to invest in fossil fuels,” said Ruth Nowotny, a sophomore majoring in English and political science. “Words mean little when actions show otherwise.”

CU Boulder benefits from more than $270 million worth of stocks or other investments the school and its foundation have in fossil fuel companies, which comprises about 5 percent of its total investments, said Ken McConnellogue, a spokesperson for the university president’s office.

“In recent years, CU has increasingly moved toward socially responsible investing,” McConnellogue said in a statement, citing the university’s commitment to an investing initiative under the United Nations.

Miguel Otárola/CPR News
Wearing a triceratops mask, Giselle Herzfeld, a climate activist with 350 Colorado, hands a flier to a University of Colorado Boulder student, demanding the school divest from fossil fuels, on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

The university’s Board of Regents is not expected to discuss divestment in upcoming meetings, McConnellogue said, adding that board Chair Lesley Smith had recently met with leaders of Fossil Free CU.

Several universities have pledged to pull hundreds of millions of dollars in fossil fuel investments in recent years, including Harvard University and the University of California system.

“There’s a disconnect in the fact that the college is trying to prepare these students for a bright and successful future, but then they’re also investing in something that’s actively harming students’ ability to even have a future,” said Giselle Herzfeld, a climate activist with 350 Colorado who helped organize the protest. 

On Friday, the students marched to the front of the school’s earth sciences building, which is named after former university president and oil and gas entrepreneur Bruce Benson. In a skit, one student handed a petition in support of divestment to a cardboard puppet wearing a suit, which was meant to represent the school’s administration.

Climate activists scheduled to speak at the climate conference, organized by the university and the United Nations Human Rights Office, also spoke to the protesters. Selina Leem, a 25-year-old “climate warrior” from the Marshall Islands, told the students that climate change is leading to rising sea levels, stronger typhoons and frequent flooding in the low-lying islands.

“When the University of Colorado calls people like me from the frontline communities to come and speak about what is happening in my backyard, I can’t have you meeting me sloppily,” Leem said. “And that means divesting from [the] fossil fuel industry.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify that some of the fossil fuel investments from which the university benefits are controlled by its foundation.