Sara Rubin here, with the climate crisis on my mind. I was reading earlier today about the many young people in Glasgow at COP26, urging decisionmakers to take real action. Depending on the moment, I find myself either inspired by their hopefulness, or feeling cynical about it—are they just trying to make a point, knowing full well these climate talks will end in talking points and little meaningful action?
Then I talked to a climate activist right here in Monterey County, CSU Monterey Bay senior Ethan Quaranta, who is hopeful but pragmatic. Quaranta is less focused on Glasgow than he is on making a difference at a global scale but from a local perspective. The environmental studies major has been active in student government since his freshman year, and since sophomore year has been building a movement calling on the CSU system to divest from fossil fuels; he now serves as co-chair of Divest the CSU of Fossil Fuels.
For two years Quaranta persisted. And that persistence paid off. In October, the CSU system—the largest public university system in the country—announced it would divest any assets in fossil fuel companies.
“Consistent with our values, it is an appropriate time to start to transition away from these types of investments, both to further demonstrate our commitment to a sustainable CSU but also to ensure strong future returns on the funds invested by the university," Chancellor Joseph I. Castro said in a statement.
The CSU system has some $5.2 billion invested in its portfolios, and of that, according to the group Divest the CSU, $155 million in fossil fuel companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil.
It’s a monumental achievement, but Quaranta and other activists were not finished. Many CSU campuses, including CSUMB, have their own auxiliaries that have their own investment portfolios. “Having the biggest domino fall in the CSU divestment push is exciting to see and surely brings momentum to our campus level divestment pushes too,” Quaranta said in a press release at the time.
CSUMB appears to be that next domino, and it may fall as early as Monday morning, when the investment committee next meets. In an Oct. 29 email to members of the President’s Sustainability Committee, CSUMB President Eduardo Ochoa wrote: “Global warming and climate change is a critical and urgent issue for humankind that needs to be addressed globally. As a university, we are committed to sustainable practices and strive to exercise and inculcate environmental responsibility in our community…at this point, I believe that the question is not so much if, but how and within what time frame should the university proceed to divest.”
Quaranta sees these actions not just as symbolic, but as substantive ways to make a difference. He’s studied divestment as a successful tactic in other campaigns—to end Apartheid in South Africa, to diminish the influence of cigarette companies—and he sees it as a meaningful tool to make progress in the existential battle that is climate change. But he also knows it’s part of a longer struggle. “As much as these announcements are exciting, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Quaranta says.
The world of an activist is one of emotional ups and downs through the long haul. Quaranta grew up taking family trips to Lake Almanor, near Lassen National Park, where his great-grandmother grew up. The place helped instill in him an appreciation for wild spaces and nature. And then last summer, the Dixie Fire burned swaths of the forest he loved and structures including the schoolhouse his great-grandmother had once attended—a personal disaster, fueled by a changing climate.
But Quaranta’s reaction is not to despair when progress falters, instead to forge ahead. He’s hopeful; he wants to work in state government after graduation. And sometimes, there’s even reason to celebrate. After the system-wide announcement in October, the self-proclaimed non-dancer held a spontaneous dance party in his apartment. Whether or not we are really going to solve climate change, it did accomplish something improbable: “It was a miracle,” Quaranta says. “I was able to dance for one time in my life.”