The Divestment Issue: An Overview
Many of you have probably seen the signs and tables talking about the divestment issue on campus. In an effort to increase awareness for the cause, Jonah Allen ’16 has written an overview of the the petition, and addresses any possible issues below.
Our divestment campaign got off to a phenomenal start this week, with our Peirce petition drive garnering nearly 600 signatures, ensuring that divestment would gain traction as a campus-wide issue.
For those still confused about what exactly divestment is, we are hoping to convince the Board of Trustees – and in particular, the Investment Committee, which specifically handles our endowment investments – that investments in fossil fuels are both ethically and economically indefensible. If the case we make is strong enough, we hope that the Board will commit to freezing any new investments in the fossil fuel industry and gradually phasing their existing investments out over a course of five years.
Several objections to our cause were brought to our attention during the Peirce petition drive. Some were answered more adequately than others, but we believe such concerns are necessary both to the larger student body’s understanding and even to our own. Here are some we found particularly important:
1) Even if all colleges divest (highly unlikely), we still won’t make a dent in these fossil fuel companies’ profits. Why don’t we push for something that has a more direct influence, like a carbon tax?
Nobody, not even the staunchest supporters of divestment, will argue that colleges and universities have any capability of bringing the fossil fuel industry down by divesting. Companies like Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are rich because they sell a lucrative product, and that product is oil.
But we can’t discount divestment’s ability to galvanize governmental action. Already there has been significant publicity around the movement, sending this message to President Obama and the federal government: the tide of public opinion is swiftly changing. The fossil fuel lobbyists cannot continue its chokehold on Washington. This generation of college students simply won’t tolerate it.
2) Fossil fuels are a relatively stable investment for the foreseeable future. It makes no sense to pull our money out if it’s doing exactly what the Investment Committee wants it to do.
Our current national infrastructure has been based around fossil fuels, from the fuel in our cars to the heat in our buildings. This is untenable, not only because of the finite reserves of oil in the ground, but because we are racing against the most dire effects of climate change itself. Thomas Lovejoy has predicted that in order to mitigate damage to vital ecosystems, “global emissions [of CO2 ] have to peak in 2016.” (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/global/the-climate-change-endgame.html)
Essentially, the world has a choice: continue our reckless emissions at the expense of the planet’s (and our) future, or declare much of the existing reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas – nearly 80% – “unburnable” as the Carbon Tracker Initiative has proposed – a no-brainer. (link: http://www.carbontracker.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/08/Unburnable-Carbon-Full1.pdf) But since some of these reserves are considered assets of the fossil fuel industry, an enforcement of “unburnable carbon” in governmental policy would drive demand for fossil fuels down. When demand goes down, share prices get hit.
In asking Kenyon to divest from fossil fuels, we are forewarning the Investment Committee about the potential loss to investment income from fossil fuels.
3) What gets lost in this picture? If investment income incurs losses to the endowment, something has to get cut – like financial aid.
Nobody involved in the campaign is looking to slash financial aid. Moreover, we don’t even believe that’s a real risk. Kenyon is unique in that its endowment doesn’t factor heavily into the annual operating budget of the college – it’s been hovering around 7% of the total operating budget in recent years. In fact, it’s mostly tuition money that goes towards financial aid. And that’s not even to say that the 7% comprised by the endowment goes entirely towards financial aid – likelihood is, it doesn’t. There’s also a large portion of the endowment floating outside the operating budget, financing other projects.
If there are investment losses – and it’s not certain there will be – we will have to look towards other places where we can afford to cut back.
Our meetings are every Wednesday, 6 P.M. in Ramser Dining Hall in Lower Peirce unless otherwise specified. We hope to bring you periodic updates on the state of our campaign via The Thrill, as well as create a forum for meaningful debate online.