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Sugar House Journal

Natural History Museum of Utah Urged to Support Fossil Free Divestment Movement

Dec 08, 2015 14h18 ● By Bryan Scott

Sugar House - 50 supporters of the recently launched Fossil Free Natural History Museum of Utah (FFNHMU) campaign gathered at the museum’s entrance to deliver a petition signed by nearly 55,000 people, asking the museum’s leaders to support divestment from stocks in fossil fuel companies.

International activist and prize-winning author Naomi Klein was present at the event.  Klein has argued that climate change is not simply a problem, but perhaps an unprecedented opportunity to build a carbon-free world that is also more just and fair than the current carbon-dependent system. 

“Public institutions wouldn’t be turning to fossil fuel companies for museum exhibits if they were properly funded.  We can’t talk about climate change without talking about the systematic attacks over the last 40 years on the public sphere.”

Sarah George, the museum’s executive director, may well support the cause. However, the PR department at the museum dismisses the petition, noting that the ultimate decision-making authority around divestment lies within the University of Utah system.  According to the University of Utah website, “Endowment policy is set by the chief investment officer, State Law (UPMIFA), and the members of The Utah state Board of Regents, The University of Utah’s Board of Trustees and an Investment Advisory Committee.” There is an ongoing campaign asking the university to divest. Recently, the University responded to protests by establishing a committee to research fossil fuel divestment.  

Although the museum itself would not make the decision to divest, Fossil Free NHMU is urging Sarah George and museum leaders to publicly support divestment, and to help push the University to relinquish its investments in fossil fuel companies.  As a respected institution of science education, the Natural History Museum of Utah has a special responsibility to act and speak in ways consistent with the scientific consensus on global climate change. 

“Any museum that purports to stand for science should be willing to take such a stand. This is about mission alignment, reputation risk management as well as financial risk management.  The Utah Natural History Museum was selected as one of five museums targeted for divestment precisely because the UNHM is renowned for its commitment to environmental sustainability,” said Paul Wickelson, co-founder of the campaign FF UNHM. “We are not attacking the museum. Rather, we want to give its leaders a chance to publicly support the values it claims to represent: sustainability, critical thinking, and humane culture as written in the Code of Ethics for Museums.”

Many prominent scientists agree. According to An Open Letter to Museums From Members of the Scientific Community, signed by almost 150 scientists and Nobel laureates including famed climatologist James Hansen, science museums have a special responsibility to act ethically: “Museums are trusted sources of information, some of our most important resources for educating children and shaping public understanding ...We are concerned that the integrity of these institutions is compromised by association with special interests who obfuscate climate science, fight environmental regulation, oppose clean energy legislation, and seek to ease limits on industrial pollution.”

With world leaders meeting in Paris at the end of November for COP21, giving another shot at a global climate accord, the time to act is now. “The situation is dire. Climate change is not only about polar bears, but about people,” says Wickelson. “Many commentators, including Pope Francis, have pointed out that climate change is a form of violence that hits first and worst those who have done the least to contribute.”

Participants in the Paris talks would be wise to take guidance from Lakota solar engineer Henry Red Cloud, who argues that we no longer have time to take baby steps. Instead, “there are times when you need to run like a buffalo.” We plan to take his advice and run like buffaloes. Hopefully, we will have the Utah Natural History Museum—and ultimately, the University of Utah—on our side.