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Divestment in Higher Education

By Sustainability Office on September 4, 2013


Article submitted by Allison Shafritz ’15

I can’t remember ever loving a place more than I love the beach. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I grew up by the water in New Jersey or the fact that the majority of my summer vacations were- and still are- spent relaxing in the sand, but I think it is safe to say that I have a particularly strong attachment to the shore. No matter who you are or where you live, there’s just no denying that there is nothing like the feeling of sand beneath your feet and waves crashing over your head. Somewhere along the way, this love for the beach developed into a longing to protect the ocean and everything surrounding it.

So when I was in high school, I joined the Environmental Club and decided to participate in a beach sweep. This meant that not only did I get to spend a day at the beach in early November (when “I feel like seeing the ocean” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse to get in the car and waste all that gas driving up and down Ocean Avenue), but also that I would get to play a part in cleaning up the coastal area. And if I could pick one day in my life that really affirmed my interest in environmental studies, this beach sweep was it.

It was the first time I truly realized the power of activism and the importance of group action in the world of environmentalism. Hundreds of people flocked to the beach that day to show that we would not stand for ocean pollution. And in just a few hours, those hundreds of people had picked up all of the garbage that lined the Jersey Shore. Of course, the story doesn’t end like that. The trash kept coming, like it always does; but that is beside the point. It isn’t actually about the garbage; it is about the beach sweep itself and the message it sends. Similarly, the current divestment campaign in higher education is not truly about the money; it is about creating a stigma around fossil fuels and fostering a new discourse about how harmful the fossil fuel industry is to the environment.

Divestment, or disinvestment, is exactly the opposite of investment. In the past, institutions have used it as a tool to protest certain policies; universities divested from South Africa in the 1980s and Big Tobacco in the 1990s. And right now, thanks to hundreds of student activists and leaders such as Bill McKibben- prominent author and environmentalist- colleges and universities are divesting from fossil fuels. What exactly does this entail? According to gofossilfree.org, McKibben is calling for institutions to freeze all new investments in fossil fuel companies and get rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds in the top two hundred companies within the next five years because it is wrong to profit from wrecking the planet.

Fossil fuels are the number one contributor to carbon in the atmosphere, which is the number one contributor to climate change. And fossil fuel companies plan on emitting five times more carbon into the atmosphere than the earth and civilization can handle. It all comes down to the numbers, and according to the math, the fossil fuel industry is now an outlaw against the laws of physics. The government-supported limit on how much warming the planet can handle is 2 degrees Celsius. After those 2 degrees, we are way beyond the tipping point. This limit allows for the burning of 565 gigatons of carbon. Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have 2795 gigatons in known reserves and fully intend to burn all of it. In other words, in order to keep warming below the limit, we need to leave about 80% of fossil fuel reserves underground. Fossil fuel companies know this but plan to use 100% of it anyway. On top of that, the companies continue to search for even more reserves.

Divestment does not only make sense from an environmental point of view. On the economic side, divestment is smart because fossil fuels are increasingly seen as a risky investment. In a survey, 77% of investment industry professionals said that they see growing risks for investors associated with fossil fuel company holdings in their investment portfolio. And in the next few years, a “carbon bubble” could emerge that is even bigger than the housing bubble of the mid-late 2000s. So, divestment may actually reduce risk by getting out ahead of the bubble burst.

When I first arrived on the water’s edge early that cool but sunny November morning, the beach was littered with garbage. But after a few hours of picking up trash, the beach was filled with something else- a sense of hope. A certain uplifting feeling arises when you know you are surrounded by people who care about an issue and want to make a difference as much as you do. Environmentalists, Jersey Shore residents, and beach lovers alike all gathered together to make that difference and protect the beaches we call home. This is what the divestment campaign in higher education is all about. When enough people stand up and speak out for something, people will listen.

The divestment campaign, at its heart, is about activism. It is about the change that can come about from a group of people fighting to make a difference. In fact, the money is not even all that relevant- it is widely accepted that divesting from fossil fuel companies will not directly affect share price or have an immediate negative impact, from an economic standpoint, on the companies that are targeted. But when enough people around the country are fighting to divest from fossil fuels, a larger conversation sparks. This grabs the media’s attention and pushes the issue forward, driving the conversation all the way up to the level of the federal government. In fact, in his speech on climate change on June 25th at Georgetown University, President Obama called for the public to “invest, divest.” Before we know it, a new public discourse around divestment will take shape and the integrity of the fossil fuel industry will erode. We have already seen this happen with the tobacco industry. Divestment, more than anything else, is a powerful way to exert leverage.

America’s universities are the place for divestment campaigns, and so far, 308 universities have joined the uphill battle. In the world of academia, we have a duty to shape public debate on energy and climate change; if we don’t lead the way (knowing what we know about climate change), then who will? More importantly, an institution’s endowment reflects its values. If our endowment portfolio has fossil fuel stock, then our education is being subsidized by investments that guarantee there will not be much of a world in which to use that education later on in life. We have a responsibility as students, teachers, and leaders to raise ethical questions. Divesting from fossil fuels mitigates long-term risk, demonstrates leadership in sustainability, and increases the intrinsic value of the institution.

Without a doubt, divestment is a contentious issue and there is no shortage of opponents with a predictable list of reasons to not divest. The first is that a university must honor its fiduciary responsibility, meaning that it must do its best to maximize returns on the endowment. It is entirely possible that divestment would negatively impact the endowment by increasing volatility and lowering returns. But this is only true to a certain extent, because typically only a very small percentage of a university’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels. Another commonly cited reason not to divest is that institutions are supposed to educate, not advocate. Some schools, like Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis, argue that it is better to maximize returns on the endowment and use the money to conduct climate change research. I’m no expert, but it seems like a university can divest from fossil fuels and still conduct cutting-edge climate change research.

What most people don’t know is that Colgate has its very own divestment campaign. Very recently, a small group of students met to discuss the beginnings of a campaign right here on campus. They applied for Thought Into Action, and although the project is not yet off the ground, the students plan to garner more support and build a strong campaign in the upcoming semesters. Some of the biggest challenges, says Colgate student Sarah Wooton ’15, will be finding out just how much of our institution’s 739 million dollar endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies and convincing the Board of Trustees that we need to divest. A lot of people are skeptical about the feasibility of divesting from fossil fuels at a university such as ours, but there is proof of success. Middlebury College is well on its way to divesting; its administration was transparent and told the student body exactly how much of the endowment was invested in fossil fuels. And if you ask any of the sustainability-minded people on campus, myself included, divestment makes even more sense at Colgate because of our commitment to climate neutrality by 2019. As a signatory to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), we recognize that climate change poses a serious threat to humanity and have pledged to take significant steps to achieve climate neutrality. Since the goal of the world’s largest oil and gas companies is to find, extract, and ultimately consume ever more fossil fuels, how can we claim to take a stand against climate change if we are financially supporting the very companies that are causing the most harm? In other words, it is completely contradictory to financially support fossil fuel companies while trying to become a climate neutral campus.

Just like the great citizens of the Jersey Shore teamed up to protect the beaches, we need to act together to fight climate change and promote the values of sustainability at Colgate University.

If you agree and want to find out more about divestment, visit gofossilfree.org and sign the petition at http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/Fossil_Free_Colgate.

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