Letter: Demand universities and other institutions be accountable on climate change

    I have joined a campaign at my college, Haverford, to call for our endowment to be divested from fossil fuel companies. We believe our college’s investment choices today need not be our investment choices of tomorrow, and that is fair to insist that institutions like colleges take significant collective action on climate change.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    In Philadelphia, we have already started to see impacts of climate change. But to keep climate change at below 2°C (3.6°F), a level considered likely to avoid some of the most drastic effects of climate change, the 200 corporations with the most fossil fuels in reserve would need to keep about 80% of their reserves underground.

    I have joined a campaign at my college, Haverford, to call for our endowment to be divested from these largest fossil fuel companies. We call for divestment in solidarity with people on the front lines of extreme resource extraction (like mountaintop-removal, coal-mining and fracking) and victims of climate change all over the world, present and future.

    We believe our college’s investment choices today need not be our investment choices of tomorrow, and that it’s fair to insist that institutions like colleges take significant collective action on climate change.

    The divestment movement is a political strategy, not an economic plan to “bring down” the fossil fuel corporations. The objective of divestment is to help neutralize the fossil fuel industry’s influence by making it so unpopular and politically unattractive that accepting industry money or being perceived as serving their interests is too costly for any politician.

    Counteracting the industry’s influence is vital to the success of any effective climate policy. The industry is the largest, most effective political actor opposing action on climate change through lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and promoting disinformation that misrepresents the state of climate science. It uses its influence to favor energy policies that lock the United States into fossil fuel use, at the expense of both renewable alternatives and consumer choice between the two.

    In an era of cutbacks, the industry benefits from tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies, despite that it is arguably the most profitable industry in history. We are effectively being forced to help fund the destruction of our own future.

    Divestment campaigns perform a powerful, nationwide political action that conveys a warning to our political institutions about the authenticity and depth of both our opposition to the fossil fuel industry and our commitment to a livable future. This action is meant to convey the seriousness of our demands for effective climate action from our elected representatives in a way standard pressure tactics cannot. Along with countering the fossil fuel industry’s influence, divestment can force a political recalculation regarding climate change for national leaders and a redefinition of what “realistic” means in the context of climate policy.

    Divestment will not on its own lead to climate justice, especially given the amount of political inertia we need to overcome and the wealth and entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry. But along with the combination of tactics including lobbying, mass rallies, direct action, and civil disobedience that are now being employed, divestment can make a significant contribution to climate justice.

    The Philadelphia region has a relatively high rate of adult residents who are college alums. As over 300 colleges and universities throughout North America have launched divestment campaigns, there is a high probability your alma mater has a campaign you can support. (A list is available at http://gofossilfree.org/campaigns/.) Some faith-based communities also have active divestment campaigns.

    The divestment movement is gaining traction. Four colleges have agreed to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies; the first The City of Seattle has also moved to divest the city pension fund from fossil fuels. This may be a viable option for Philadelphia as well, but only if we demand it. The financial impact of fossil-fuels divestment on a college or city may vary depending on the institution’s current portfolio, but fossil fuel companies will become a riskier and less profitable investment as fossil fuel reserves are depleted. Inaction is simply not a viable long-term option.

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