Fossil Fuels Off Campus

Members of Fossil Free Stanford launch a sit-in to demand their university’s full divestment from fossil fuels, November 16, 2015. Photo by Dean Chahim, Fossil Free Stanford.

The campus movement for divestment from fossil fuel holdings is but a few years old, barely 2 percent of the time gone by since human beings, having discovered how to extract stupendous amounts of energy from the buried remains of extinct life, started clogging the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. One way to frame these facts is to say that the climate movement—of which fossil fuel divestment is a part—started late. Another way to frame the same facts is to say that fossil fuel divestment has come a long way in a hurry.

So, in the arc of a movement that is necessary though scarcely sufficient, where are we? As air leaks out of the balloon of climate change denial, it’s possible that we’ve arrived at the end of the beginning. But it’s not yet time to declare victory and go home. If the outcomes are, so far, smaller than one might have hoped, they are also more substantial than one might have feared. The divestment movement, acting alongside political allies, has generated a great deal of energy and has widened the necessary discussion of the climate convulsion and how we should respond.

When the practical visionary Bill McKibben began promoting divestment in speeches across the country three years ago, the idea was startlingly straightforward. It remains so. Investing in fossil fuels means mobilizing the power of capital to locate, explore, and extract reserves, which, if burned, render civilization increasingly chaotic and tenuous, especially for vulnerable populations. Investment means voting with money—and to invest in the production of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases is tantamount to voting to wreck the planet.

If there is one institution that, even nominally, has a stake in public enlightenment, it is colleges and universities. Their prestige can, at times, be translated into moral force. But in crucial respects university governance is little—if anything—more than a fundraising apparatus. Though fossil fuel companies are the ultimate target, the students who support divestment also challenge their own institutions in the process. How much independence of mind and moral force is possible, they ask, when the institution is beholden to entities that have other—often contrary—interests?

The idea of divestment is to stigmatize the companies that are digging the world into a deeper hole. The first part, conceptually, is simple: to compel them to stop digging. The second is a little more intricate: to encourage universities to reinvest in something more constructive. Divestment is built on the premise that the world is a dense web of reverberating action and reaction, and that it is possible to generate a positive feedback loop in which good decisions spawn other good decisions, which, if things go well, will change our culture.

Contrary to the straw man raised by divestment opponents, the goal is not to drive down the price of oil, gas, and coal; by the way, market forces are already doing quite a good job of that all on their own. It is entirely true, as the industry’s spokespeople persist in reminding us ignoramuses, that insofar as someone sells shares, someone else buys them. The point is to make every important decision-making body—every corporate board, every party congress, every investment committee of every pension fund and university—wrestle with their responsibility for directing the world toward a sustainable future.

Most university governing boards think this is none of their business. Some, like the Harvard Corporation, think their mission is to invest and, if necessary, to chat. They speak the same language, after all. As fossil fuel managers go about their business, the self-selecting bodies that govern universities assume, or purport to assume, that they can settle whatever differences arise by chatting these managers out of their errors. This so-called “engagement” strategy of trying to persuade corporate chiefs to listen to sweet reason and change their minds is, if one is to take it at all seriously, tantamount to the well-meaning mouse’s effort to engage the cat. These companies’ destructive policies are not errors. They are a business model that, predictably, helps pour more carbon dioxide (as well as other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, heat the planet, acidify the ocean, and intensify drought, flood, and all manner of other extreme weather phenomena with terrible consequences.

For decades, the companies knew more than they let on about the dire consequences of business-as-usual. So they lied, stalled, denied, propagandized, stalled more, and maintained that their voracious consumption of fossil fuels was a gift to all of us energy-greedy peons. Their tactics vary, but their strategy does not: the longer these companies (and the sovereign wealth funds invested by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other governments) succeed in pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the more money they make, or think they can make, even if the results are calamitous.

In a 1958 tract, The Causes of World War III, the late C. Wright Mills coined the inspired term “crackpot realism” for the defense intellectuals who developed the framework for driving the Cold War to the brink of all-around annihilation. Let’s adapt it for today’s climate context and say that the fossil fuel industry and its enablers are practicing haywire realism. University officials are enablers. Disgracefully, most university leaders jumped, and stayed, on the oily bandwagon, which is another reason why divestment movements are necessary: they expose how far universities depart from what might be considered their truth-finding, truth-telling missions. What pass as arguments against divestment are so laughable, it’s hard to take them seriously. There is, for example, the claim that to maximize returns, firms simply cannot afford to rule out any possible investment. In Harvard’s official statement issued in the name of President Drew Faust in 2013: “logic and experience indicate that barring investments in a major, integral sector of the global economy would—especially for a large endowment reliant on sophisticated investment techniques, pooled funds, and broad diversification—come at a substantial economic cost.” Actually, research by MSCI, a firm that advises ninety-seven of the top one hundred asset managers, demonstrates that investors who sold their stakes in fossil fuel companies in 2008 would have been better off by 2013, when Faust made her statement. By one reckoning, it has been seven years since the high price of oil made fossil fuel energy a superior investment.

Still, on the scale of global investment overall, the amounts of money involved are trivial, so if there is an opportunity to make a moral statement and contribute to the necessary stigmatization without jeopardizing returns, why not? According to Carolyn Beeler of WHYY in Philadelphia, NYU, Bowdoin, and Middlebury have disclosed how much of their endowments is directly wrapped up in fossil fuels: 5 percent or less. At the University of Hawaii, it was 5–7 percent before divestment. Moreover, financial wizardry is intrinsically limited. Anyone who could accurately prophesy future returns on investments would have anticipated the great financial meltdown of 2007–08. PS: They didn’t. Pension funds and endowments, along with the rest of the economy, took a bath. The parsing of potential losses from selling off fossil fuel investments would be hilarious if it weren’t such a flagrant sign of intellectual bankruptcy.

The conclusion is undeniable: the structures responsible for investing nearly $500 billion belonging to the five hundred wealthiest colleges and universities in the United States define their fiduciary responsibility in such a way as to ward off the interference of noisy students, obstreperous faculty, and other “amateurs.” They claim a monopoly on business acumen and law. These boards of self-perpetuating leaders affirm that they are the realists, but they have power without accountability. When the endowments under their direction crash with the rest of the economy, no one penalizes them. No wonder they don’t like meddlers.

Actually, I exaggerate. The boards don’t quite know what to do with their power—it would be too much trouble to make informed decisions about where to invest—so they farm them out to advisers, managers, and investors who, in turn, see fit to rubber-stamp corporate managers at fossil fuel companies despite the fact that entities like ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and others have systematically deceived the public for decades about climate change. For universities-as-investors, theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to collect proceeds.

Against these assertions of unaccountable power, one might imagine the divestment movement helpless. Not so. It bears pausing for a moment to tick off some of its successes, which have grown in 2014 and 2015:

  • Pitzer College divested from fossil fuels in 2014, and set up a Sustainability Fund to make environmentally responsible investments.
  • Stanford University divested from coal, including mutual funds that include coal, in 2015. However, it continues to resist student demands for divestment beyond coal.
  • Syracuse University and the University of Hawaii agreed to sell off their shares in all publicly traded companies whose primary business is extraction of fossil fuels in 2015. Syracuse went further and decided to invest in “companies that are developing new technology related to solar energy, biofuels and advanced recycling,” according to the university’s press release.
  • The University of California agreed in 2015 to sell some $200 million of its holdings in coal and oil sands.

City pension funds, churches, foundations, and other organizations around the world—including universities abroad—have made comparable commitments. Professional associations—notably in public health and medicine—are developing responses to climate change. Planning for adaptation is taking place in cities and countries around the world. There is a cascade effect at work, comparable to the one Robert K. Massie demonstrated in his magisterial study of the South Africa divestment campaign in the 1980s, Loosing the Bonds.

Divestment in the United States and in South Africa share similarities. They connect the focused and knowledgeable passion of activists with generally progressive student sentiment—loathing for apartheid in one case, fear of the already manifest consequences of climate change in the other. They connect the university here with a collective crime out there, and in this way feed on the impulse to purge one’s institution of moral taint. They’re both roundly internationalist—they enable activists to feel like citizens of the world. They connect students with off-campus movements and organizations (TransAfrica, Starting from atrocious news (apartheid killings, extreme weather), they offer practical answers to the question, “What can we, in our corner of the universe, do about that big awful out there?” The end of apartheid did not establish heaven in South Africa, just as slow-moving investment changes in energy will not deposit predatory capitalism in the dustbin of history. But they both deliver results.

Though the balance sheet is incomplete, the climate movement as a whole, and the divestment movement within it, have surely contributed to the spirit that moved governments forward in Paris last December to resolve to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Obviously, delivering on the aspirations will be something else again. It’s too soon to assess the impact of the alternative investment programs started by Pitzer and Syracuse.

But here is some good news. While fossil fuel companies and their idiotic but useful political allies in the Republican Party continue to fulminate, they are losing ground with public opinion. Greenwashing propaganda is rife, though less effective than before. Indeed, some dirty players and affiliated useful idiots—indeed, some fossil fuel companies and their allies—now feel the need to align themselves publicly with the angels. Consider the following statement that was issued at the end of 2015 by five major manufacturers of American automobile tires:

[I]f 97% of experts warned that unless certain steps were taken there would be a significant risk of large explosions at a company’s manufacturing facilities, the CEO would be compelled to act on the warning. If the strategy were to merely hope that the experts were wrong and the explosions occurred, the chief executive would lose his job and might, depending on the details, face dire legal consequences. Climate change is no different. If we do not act now and the science proves even largely right, we will have lost the opportunity to manage our risk. Doing nothing or very little means betting that most of the world’s scientists are fundamentally wrong. It is an all or nothing bet with the only planet we have, a bet no sensible person would make.

Sniffs the cynic: all very well and good. An agnostic like myself is impressed with the rhetoric of the tire chieftains, glad they went to the trouble, and looks forward to the day when they announce that they not only like carbon taxes but will lobby for them.

The climate movement, by fits and starts, is changing the culture—not fast enough, not thoroughly enough, but changing it nonetheless. The divestment movements on hundreds of campuses are pointing fingers at institutions that, while not major energy users themselves, carry weight. Some movers and shakers in these movements will go on to devote their lives to related work; many already do so. Even though most divestment movements have not yet succeeded in persuading universities to drop haywire policies, they help. That is all anyone can ask of movements that aim to replace haywire realism with the real kind.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University. He has been active in the divestment movements at Columbia and among Harvard alumni. He is the author of sixteen books. His next is a novel, The Opposition.

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