With a new school year ahead of him, Gonzaga environmental professor Brian Henning reflects on climate change and 'divestment'

click to enlarge DEREK HARRISON PHOTO
Derek Harrison photo

The days are getting shorter. The air a little brisker. Students are back in class.

As university professors roll up their sleeves for a new school year, Gonzaga environmental professor Brian Henning is preparing once again to fight for a sustainable future.

Henning is a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Gonzaga and is the faculty leader of Fossil Free Gonzaga, which is a campaign to divest Gonzaga from the fossil fuel industry. With class back in session, we caught up with Henning to discuss his plans for the new school year, divestment and more.

The responses below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: Last year, it seemed like you made progress in the divestment movement, but ultimately the university declined. What happened and what comes next?

HENNING: Last year, Gonzaga's Board of Trustees agreed to take a more deliberate approach to considering the social and environmental practices of the companies it supports through its endowment. However, despite the unified support from students, faculty and staff, the Gonzaga Board of Trustees voted against fossil fuel divestment. The student leaders of Fossil Free Gonzaga will continue their campaign until Gonzaga's board pledges meaningful fossil fuel divestment with a responsible mode and tempo.

To the layperson, what is "divestment" and what does it mean?

Like most universities, Gonzaga has an endowment. These are usually funds that have been gifted to the institution by those who believe in and support our mission. Institutions do not draw directly from the endowment, but instead invest those funds and use a portion of the profits to fund student scholarships and other university expenses. In the context of Gonzaga's endowment, it is the decision to end or no longer invest in companies or sectors that are "inimical to the values the university espouses." The Fossil Free Gonzaga campaign has requested that "Gonzaga University's Board of Trustees commit by 2020 to divest Gonzaga's endowment from the current 200 most carbon-intensive companies. Doing so will formally recognize the reality and urgency of the climate crisis and show fidelity to our Jesuit, Catholic, humanistic mission and to our endowment Investment Policy and Guidelines." Fossil Free Gonzaga wants the university to align its endowment with its values.

As a professor of environmental studies, what are you most excited for about the new school year? What are you most challenged by?

I have the honor of teaching environmental ethics, which invites students to consider what their most deeply held value commits are, whether they are living up to them, and what they might do now and in the future to embody them more fully. This work is as rewarding as it is challenging. I find the passion and courage of our students to be an ongoing source of inspiration and motivation.

Big picture question: Climate change seems like its at the forefront of our national discourse, and yet it often feels overlooked. Where do you think we are in terms of addressing it?

As the climate changes and we experience ever-larger storms, floods, droughts and wildfires, Americans are coming to realize that we ignore the climate crisis at our own peril. The effects of this are starting to show up in our political discussions. For the first time in our nation's history, polling has climate change among the top issues defining our national presidential election.

Locally, people in Spokane are increasingly concerned about climate change and this is starting to affect local elections as well. The local climate action group 350 Spokane, of which I am a founding member, has worked hard this election cycle to help collect information on local candidates' views on climate change and share them with voters. We are co-hosting the first ever Spokane Candidates Climate Change Forum (the C3 Forum, Oct. 2), which will bring together candidates for Spokane mayor, City Council president and City Council to talk about their views on global warming and what they would do about it if elected to represent us. Contrary to how it is commonly presented, climate change is not primarily a partisan issue. ♦

Latah County Fair @ Latah County Fairgrounds

Through Sept. 15
  • or

About The Author

Quinn Welsch

Quinn Welsch is the copy editor of the Inlander.