#StopAdani: Students ask Schapiro to leverage influence and abandon Australian coal mine insurance brokerage


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

University President Morton Schapiro is one of 13 members on the Board of Directors for the transnational Marsh & McLennan Companies handling the insurance brokerage for the Adani Carmichael coal mine.

Isabelle Sarraf, Development and Recruitment Editor

On Monday, Fossil Free Northwestern and Associated Student Government’s Sustainability Committee released a joint statement calling on University President Morton Schapiro to abandon his role in the Adani Carmichael coal mine brokerage that has garnered global attention from climate change activists.

Schapiro is one of 13 members on the Board of Directors for the transnational Marsh & McLennan Companies, a global professional services firm currently brokering insurance for the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia — one of the largest proposed coal mines in the world.

If built, this mine would occupy the lands of the indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou people, who have not provided Free, Prior and Informed Consent, a United Nations recognized right that allows indigenous peoples to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territories.

Indigenous lands and waters represent 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and indigenous peoples have proven to be effective conservators of them, so to build a coal mine on occupied indigenous lands would directly cause them to be disproportionately impacted by the global climate crisis.

Additionally, the Adani project’s potential 700 million tons in carbon emissions output is comparable to recent emissions of nations such as Germany and South Korea, which could affect global temperatures and climate change everywhere.

How an Australian movement arrived at NU’s doorstep

The fight to stop Adani’s coal mine has been considered one of the “biggest people-powered campaigns” in Australian history, according to #StopAdani, since its inception in 2016. Adani has already faced problems in brokering insurance for the coal mine project, as over 65 companies have ruled out involvement due to mounting pressures from climate activists.

Janet Kossy, a volunteer for a local #StopAdani group in Sydney and former Evanston resident, immediately alerted NU and Evanston communities when she discovered Schapiro’s connection to the insurance brokerage.

The #StopAdani movement permeated federal elections since many of Australia’s leaders are “beholden” to fossil fuel lobbies and corporate interests, Kossy said. Given Schapiro’s activity as an MMC director, she said his position as a representative of a prestigious university and moral authority figure gives him leveraging power.

“I’ve noticed that (Schapiro) sees himself as not just an economist, but also very much an arts and science person who looks at the big picture and has a humane approach,” Kossy said. “I think that is all of value to MMC and their image, moral authority and standing in the business community, but it also underlines the responsibility of (Schapiro) to give real leadership on this issue.”

Schapiro is on MMC’s Environmental, Social and Governance Committee, which oversees and supports the company’s commitment to “social, environmental and other public policy initiatives.” As of Jan. 2018 he owned over 1,765 units of stock in the company — worth over $885,000 — and earned a $315,000 salary last year for his role on the Board of Directors.

Students take action, talk climate injustice

Weinberg sophomore Keala Uchoa, president of Fossil Free NU, said the organization’s decision to become a local hub of the #StopAdani campaign was a symbol of solidarity and reiterated the mine’s global consequences.

“This coal is being transported to other places in the world and that causes huge issues in terms of local pollution levels, exposures to environmental harms, the communities that are located in close proximity to these factories and using coal as a source of energy,” Uchoa said. “The effects of the climate crisis reverberate globally.”

Fossil Free NU commends Schapiro and the University for their “serious strides” toward sustainability, Uchoa said, which is why the organization is asking him — as a “palpable and tangible” representative of the University — to utilize his influence on MMC’s Board of Directors. She said NU has played a role recently to develop policy using an “influencing ethos,” citing the Buffett Institute’s drafted Global Strategic Plan, which would position the University as a global leader on climate change.

Fossil Free NU hosted a “phone zap” on Wednesday, during which students called Schapiro’s office to demand he use his power on the Board of Directors to help ensure MMC’s new global position on coal includes ruling out further work with the Adani Carmichael mine in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Queensland.

“Our orientation in this campaign is not an antagonistic one — in fact, we want to commend him for (being) vocal on the climate crisis and the progress the University has made under his leadership,” Uchoa said. “That being said, we want to support and urge (Schapiro) to make the right decision and utilize his influence to stop the insurance brokerage of the Adani coal mine.”

Weinberg junior Cameron Cook, an organizing member for Young Democratic Socialists of America’s NU chapter and a former Daily staffer, said the organization decided unanimously to cosign Fossil Free NU’s statement. She said Schapiro being so heavily involved with MMC and the coal mine sheds light on the struggle for fossil fuel divestment — if it’s not out of place for someone like Schapiro to be involved with the development of a coal mine, she said, then it’s likely that members of NU’s Board of Trustees have a stake in the fossil fuel industry.

[Read more about the push-and-pull for fossil fuel divestment.]

Board of Trustees member T. Bondurant French (Weinberg, ’75, Kellogg ’76) told students who protested at a 2015 board meeting that Northwestern had a negligible holding in coal plants. The revelation of Schapiro’s involvement in the Adani coal mine brokerage, Cook said, adds a layer of complexity to the fight for divestment.

She said YDSA NU has been trying to localize large goals such as divestment to the smaller-scaled NU community to ensure the University is not complicit in “climate change or genocide.”

“YDSA as an organization is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, so it’s a very natural position for us to take to be against the creation of a coal mine that would be really harmful to indigenous people,” Cook said. “And obviously having (Schapiro) even remotely connected to that is reprehensible.”

ASG votes to support #StopAdani efforts

ASG voted in its Wednesday meeting to stand against Schapiro’s involvement with the Adani coal mine. The resolution, co-authored by McCormick junior Lauren Simitz, ASG Chair of Sustainability, came days after the ASG Sustainability Committee made the joint statement with Fossil Free NU on the topic.

“I think we have a responsibility as a committee and as part of student government to represent sustainability goals from a student perspective as well as a community and wider approach,” Simitz said.

The University’s plan on climate change remains vague, Simitz said, which means the actions taken by University personnel ultimately represent what NU’s climate stance is.

Similar to the fight for divestment, Simitz said a source of conflict has been the lack of a direct route to reaching administrators on the subject of climate change policy and the #StopAdani movement. She said the collaboration with Fossil Free NU has been helpful to get the message out to the wider community because of the organization’s connections with different activist groups on and off-campus.

“(ASG) hopes to gain student support on-campus, as well as bringing in grad students and faculty,” Simitz said. “The main way we’re doing that is (by) proposing legislation in the student Senate and moving that to the Faculty Senate as well so that we can hopefully vote in support of this as an entire body as opposed to just the ASG executive board.”

Path to accountability for NU sustainability goals remain unclear

Despite organizing this week, the student activists remain in the dark about Schapiro’s decision regarding the coal mine development — and he is unlikely to issue a statement.

“(Schapiro’s) experience with corporate boards dates back to 1993. During those 27 years, he has never seen a director speak publicly about a company’s internal deliberations, and that will not happen now,” a University spokesperson said in an email to The Daily.

Weinberg sophomore Sarah Fernandez Tabet, vice president of Fossil Free NU, said the organization connected with Kossy, who explicated the situation surrounding Schapiro’s involvement. Similar to Cook, she said the Adani coal mine situation parallels that of the fight for divestment because of the discrepancy between NU’s words and actions regarding sustainability initiatives.

NU recently won an award for its commitment to energy efficiency. However, Fossil Free NU said it has yet to receive a response from the University following the phone zap.

“I think we just have to hold (the University) accountable to the things that they say and the image that they are trying to give off,” Fernandez Tabet said, “because we do want Northwestern to be a sustainable place and a leading institution in addressing climate change, but that obviously can’t happen if you have higher-ups in admin who are very clearly implicated in the fossil fuel industry.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @isabellesarraf

Related Stories:
ASG votes to stand against Schapiro’s involvement with coal mine
Letter to the Editor: Calling on President Schapiro to abandon the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
ASG passes resolution calling on University to divest from the fossil fuel industry