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The Carletonian

A Faculty Voice For Divestment

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On Wednesday, Oct. 29, the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC) will hold a town-hall meeting (Great Hall, 6-8 pm) to discuss divesting the Carleton endowment from fossil fuels. I appreciate the initiative of the CRIC to encourage campus discussion. A campus survey taken last year shows a majority of students supporting divestment. A large student presence, organized by the Climate Justice Coalition, is expected at the town-hall meeting, and I hope and urge faculty and staff to attend and lend their voice of support.

The college has been a leader in environmental issues, sustainability, and promoting renewable energy. But much more needs to be done. The global warming crisis escalates.

Just last week, a leading medical journal urged the World Health Organization to declare climate change a global public health emergency. Ever-louder voices of scientists and regional governments point to the collapse of ecosystems, mass species extinctions, more terrifying extreme weather events—all the impact of man-made carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Stronger and faster action is needed. For the lone individual the news can be numbing.

The divestment movement aims the spotlight on who is fundamentally responsible for the destructive policies that are threatening the planet — the fossil fuel industry. As explained by groups like 350. org, the case for divestment boils down to a few simple numbers: (i) A consensus of scientists and policy makers sets the bar of 2-degrees Celsius as the maximum temperature rise which can be allowed before facing irreversible climate consequences. (ii) This translates to a maximum allowable 565 gigatons of CO2 which can be added to the atmosphere. (iii) The fossil companies have current reserves of coal, oil and gas equal to 2,795 gigatons of CO2 – five times the amount that can be released to maintain 2 degrees of warming.

At least 80% of the fossil industry’s reserves need to be kept in the ground! Yet Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum, Shell, etc., poison the public debate by funding the climate denial machine, corrupting the political process, continuing to sabotage international efforts at emission curbs, and are feverishly rushing in evermore dangerous ways to extract more and more fossil fuels. In other words, the business model of the fossil industry is on a collision course with the life of the planet.

The college should not in good conscience be gambling on the increasing profits of the fossil industry. And yet that is exactly what we are doing by investing in fossil companies.

Is it hypocritical to divest from fossil fuels when we drive cars, send our students abroad on airplanes which have big carbon emissions, and otherwise engage in a carbon-based system? I believe that this argument is the road to inaction, complacency and despair. Yes, we are all embedded in the carbon economy, but the point is to find a place to break out and take action. And where better than against those who have so much responsibility for the crisis?

There are sound economic alternatives to investing in fossil fuel companies. One benefit of divestment is that it frees up endowment funds to be invested in clean energy and energy efficiency. As difficult as transitioning from fossil fuels might be, it can be done.

Stanford, with an endowment of over $18 billion, has divested from coal companies. And the University of Glasgow, with the United Kingdom’s fifth largest college endowment, just this month became the first European college to divest.

Some believe that the endowment should not be used to make “political statements.’’ But in the context of a growing pro-divestment movement, isn’t deciding to not divest also making an implicit political statement? And some times a corporate malfeasance is so great that there are overwhelming moral, political, and social reasons to make a stand.

A fundamental Carleton value is its strong sense of social responsibility. Doing what is right must ultimately trump the rate of return on an investment. As faculty, our mission is to help prepare students for their futures. But first there must be a future. And if the fossil fuel industry is not challenged and stopped that future is in question.

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