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Divestment from fossil fuels is an investment in social justice

Published: December 6, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories


Orange triangles, makeshift shelters and petitions covered campus last spring before Brandeis students voted to divest the university from fossil fuels.

After a vocal student-led campaign, students, faculty and administrators at Brandeis University are evaluating the best options for the university’s divestment from fossil fuels. In April, the initiative passed with more than 79 percent of students in favor of divestment. Students across the country are joining the campaign to divest not because each school’s individual investment in fossil fuels is significant, but because divestment by notable organizations can stigmatize fossil fuel companies, encouraging major investors to reconsider their investment options.

Abbie Goldberg ’16, a club member of Students for a Just and Stable Future, explained how divestment aims to take power back from the hands of fossil fuel companies. “Right now, those companies have so much money in our government that they are able to effectively block any policies or binding actions aimed at combating climate change. Ideally, if divestment succeeds, it will look bad for politicians to accept money from these companies and thus their political power will be taken away,” she said.

Universities, cities and religious organizations are joining the movement to divest, claiming that they feel a responsibility to social justice and that fossil fuel companies are creating injustices. “Around 20 cities have also divested as well as many religious organizations. Even the state of Massachusetts recently introduced a divestment bill,” Goldberg said. She explained that college campuses are particularly interested in the issue because it is “a direct and tangible way students can impact the wider dialogue on fossil fuels and climate change.”

Brandeis’ mission is centered on the principles of social justice. Students claim that according to that policy, the university should not be investing its funds in companies that use the money to burn fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change and negatively impacts communities across the globe by causing death and destruction.

Divestment was previously popular in the 1960s through the 1980s during Apartheid in South Africa. In 1986, the United States pulled its investments from South Africa, pressuring the government to yield to negotiations and disassemble the system of Apartheid. Martin Hamilton ’16, a member of Students for a Just and Stable Future, said, “Given the urgency of climate action, the application of this tactic is extremely relevant.”

Although the campaign aims to end all investment in any fossil fuel funds, most organizations that go through the process to divest still retain some investments in fossil fuels. They only seek to decrease the investments in certain companies gradually and to screen funds in the future to ensure they align with the organization’s mission.

But not everyone is on board with divestment. At two Ivy League colleges—Brown and Harvard— the administration has clearly stated they will not pursue divestment. The universities chose not to divest, even though the majority of students voted to approve divestment.

The President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, published a statement on Oct. 3 regarding divestment. “While I share [the students’] belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” he wrote. He continues, discussing his concern about the endowment funds and the ability to ensure that Harvard can act as an academic institution rather than as a social or political organization. In the future, Harvard will attempt to engage in sustainable investing, considering environmental and social implications of investments.

These concerns are shared by Brandeis administrators. After the student vote, the university created the Divestment Committee to examine the financial impact of divestment to determine if this is the appropriate course of action. The committee will then deliver recommendations in the spring of 2014 to the Board of Trustees. Withdrawing funds from fossil fuel companies could potentially put Brandeis’ investment portfolio at risk, threatening the school’s endowment.

Eric Olson, a professor at the Heller School with a background in geology, ecology and environmental activism, is part of the divestment committee. Olson examines the climate and health consequences that result when the world relies on burning things such as coal, oil and natural gas to obtain energy.

Olson also believes there is a possibility that the stock values of fossil fuel companies are overrated and that at some point a “carbon bubble” might impact the economy. “In this respect, selling these stocks now could even be viewed as wise, and some analysts have indeed urged investors heavily invested in these companies’ earnings to pull back and diversify,” he said.

Professor John Ballantine (IBS) is also a faculty member on the committee. He discussed how the committee is looking to see if there are other options to pursue beside divestment. “This is a complex issue, and divestment is one initiative. People are looking at social justice issues, and we have endowments, which fund the university and scholarships,” he said. The university encounters significant constraints when it plans to tell investors that it doesn’t want any investments in energy companies since these financially support the university.

Ballantine said that the committee is reaching out to the investment community, including local groups such as the Walden Asset Management Fund, where some Brandeis graduates work.

Students said that many people should have an interest in divestment from fossil fuels. “People across the country are already dying, having their land taken, getting cancer, suffering from polluted water and much more,” Goldberg said.

Energy companies make a huge profit every year. Olson said that if divestment is acted upon by many different organizations, then companies that sell fossil fuels will have to recognize popular opinion. Activists, scientists and government agencies can pressure companies into recognizing the negative impacts that result from burning fossil fuels, which can spur Congress to impose a tax or other legislation limiting the use of fossil fuels.

Although it may be unlikely for the Board of Trustees to approve of complete divestment, more socially conscious investing can still have an impact. Olson said that there is a possibility that fund managers could be asked to avoid companies that mine and sell coal if possible since coal has a particularly terrible impact on the environment.

If the university chooses to divest, it can draw media attention to fossil fuel companies. “People look to universities as sources of understanding and ideas and as places where trends are born. Next, new things emerge and so on. We may not lead with financial brawn, but we do lead with brains,” Olson said.

“This is a very worrisome trend with potentially terrible consequences for our descendants and for the world’s poorest people, like those affected by sea level rise and other climate-related change,” Olson said.