When the fossil fuel divestment movement began at Carleton almost a decade ago, few colleges or universities had committed to moving their endowments out of fossil fuels. By 2014, only two U.S. liberal arts colleges had made divestment pledges: College of the Atlantic and Pitzer College.
But today, 10 U.S. liberal arts colleges have made divestment commitments, and not just smaller, environmental schools. Middlebury, Smith, and Wesleyan all committed to divestment within the last few years, and most recently both Amherst and Wellesley did the same.
Besides liberal arts colleges, Rutgers University, Columbia University, the University of Southern California, and Cambridge University have all made divestment commitments in the last few months. Midwest powerhouse University of Michigan committed to divestment this March.
This movement is growing, and Carleton is falling behind.
From a financial perspective, the writing is on the wall. In January of last year, Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s Mad Money and the co-anchor of Squawk on the Street, announced:
“I’m done with fossil fuels . . . they’re just done. We’re starting to see divestment all over the world. You’re seeing divestiture by a lot of different funds. It’s going to be a parade.”
Earlier this year, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with a portfolio of more than $7 trillion, told the CEOs of BlackRock’s portfolio companies to outline their plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Climate risk, Fink says, will prompt a massive shift of global capital:
“I think people will look back in 2021 and find that those companies that are not focusing on climate change and how it impacts their company will trade at a lower and lower P/E, and companies that are front-footed and focused on it will be trading at higher P/Es.”
On behalf of the New York City teachers’ and public employees’ retirement funds, Blackrock analysts researched the risk of divesting from fossil fuel companies. They concluded that the portfolios of hundreds of funds worldwide had experienced “no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, they found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” Moreover, divested portfolios “outperformed their benchmarks.”
If Carleton divested now, it likely would experience no negative financial impact. As time goes on, and fossil fuel company stocks trade at lower and lower P/Es, Carleton’s continued investment in these stocks clearly will be the wrong decision.
That’s certainly the perspective of many in the Carleton community. 2,820 have signed the Divest Carleton petition. Students at Carleton presently are working for climate justice by taking direct action against Enbridge Energy’s dirty tar sands “Line 3,” which crosses indigenous lands and waters in northern Minnesota. Over 40 years ago, Dr. Ed Buchwald and other Carleton professors taught environmental responsibility to their students well before an environmental science program existed. Commenting for this article, Dr. Buchwald wrote:
“Carleton is one of the best of the best. And therefore it is even more critical to show the rest of the country, if not the world, what is important. And what is important now is that we, as quickly as possible, reduce the physical impact of the college, which includes wasting energy, using energy improperly, and drastically reducing the impact of the chemicals that are waste products of energy consumption. The college has already taken steps related to the campus itself, but to truly lead it is imperative that Carleton also eliminate its investments in fossil fuels.”
There is no time to lose. Global temperature has increased 2°F (1°C) above pre-industrial temperatures, with regions like the Arctic warming much more. While this may not sound like much, it is. And while the ocean has been absorbing about 50% of the increase in CO2 injected into the atmosphere, it comes at the cost of increasing acidity, affecting coral reefs and many other marine organisms.
As the ocean warms, it will not absorb as much CO2 and may even release some of the CO2 it has absorbed. Most excess CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for many decades, and some will linger for millennia. We don’t have time to wait for unproven carbon-sucking machines to keep us from exceeding the 1.5°C threshold for averting the most dangerous impacts of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has detailed these impacts. The smartest move would be to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels.
And beyond the financial and moral imperative to stop investing in harmful industries, there is now both business and political will supporting cessation. Transportation is the largest emitter of carbon in the U.S., and many car manufacturers have committed to all-electric vehicles in the near future. The Biden administration has underscored the need to move quickly and efficiently away from fossil fuels with its ambitious new target: achieve a 50-52% reduction in 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Under this plan, ~50% of energy production in the U.S. will be based on renewable sources by 2030 (transportation, electric, etc.), and 100% of electricity will be produced by fossil-free sources, thereby zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2035. Ultimately, the aim is to transform the United States into a 100% clean energy economy by 2050.
The new administration has established that investment in outdated energy technology is not the way forward, and our own community of Carls, Carleton’s peer colleges, major financial institutions, and the scientific community all agree. The time has come to take this crucial step: we urge the Board of Trustees to divest Carleton College’s endowment from all fossil fuel funds.
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