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Naive neutrality

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The Carleton Climate Justice Coalition (CJC) appreciates the consideration that the Board of Trustees has given thus far to the issue of fossil fuel divestment. We see a way forward here. We look forward to continued dialog with the Trustees on this issue, as we believe that divestment is both an achievable and a necessary goal. Our mission remains the same: we support the full divestment of Carleton’s endowment (within 5 years, including both direct holdings and commingled funds) from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

Divestment from fossil fuels is a moral and ethical issue above all else. Investing in a company means owning a stake in that company’s growth. As an institution committed to the future of its community and its students, Carleton cannot in good conscience continue to support the growth of an industry whose very business plan threatens human life on this planet. At the same time, it is impossible to deny that divestment is also a political statement. Divestment is inherently political; the goal of the movement is to galvanize people to create social and political change, undermining the social license of the fossil fuel industry.

Divesting from fossil fuels requires Carleton to take an institutional political position. The truth is, however, that Carleton has already taken such a position. The argument that divestment is “too political” for Carleton ignores our school’s long history of engaging in political action on climate change. It applies an unreasonable double standard to the question at hand.

In 2001, Carleton’s Board of Trustees endorsed a new Environmental Statement of Principles. The text of this statement includes the following:

“We are dedicated… to investigating and promoting awareness of the current and future impact of our actions in order to foster responsibility for these human and natural communities”

Carleton is also a signatory to the ACUPCC: the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. This commitment, which we signed in 2007, includes includes the following statements:

“We believe colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize global warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality.”

“We further recognize the need to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80% by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worst impacts of global warming”

Carleton has remained true to its word; we have become an exceptionally “green” and forward-looking college. Among our many accomplishments in this vein, we have created a Climate Action Plan and promised to become carbon neutral by 2050. Carleton currently employs a full time Manager of Campus Energy and Sustainability, as well as numerous student workers devoted to making Carleton a greener place. Last year, we lent our support to a major community event on climate change, the Northfield Climate Summit. We have a magnificent arboretum, wind turbines, roof-top solar, and LEED-certified buildings; we buy local food, have a student organic farm, and compost extensively. Looking forward, these principles are integrated throughout our new strategic plan. 

What about this constitutes an institutional political position? Many would argue that these are simply expressions of our commitment to being responsible community members. Climate change and the environment, many would say, should not be political issues; they are deeper human issues that deserve attention and action from everyone.

This is all true. However, the unfortunate reality is that climate change has become a political issue in this country. The science of climate change has been firm for more than two decades, and we have yet to take meaningful action to stop it. Observe the following the examples:

-Two states, Florida and Wisconsin, have recently banned employees of certain government agencies from using the words “climate change” in the course of their work.

-The chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Senator James Inhofe, is the author of a book titled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

-More than half of the officially declared United States presidential candidates for 2016 are publicly skeptical of the existence of climate change.

In such a political climate, it is not possible to take a stand on climate change and remain politically neutral. The fact that Carleton has taken one is political already. A policy of political neutrality on climate change would mean refusing to comment on its existence, something which we cannot in good conscience do as an institution of higher education. In a world where the veracity of science is a political issue, no responsible position can be politically neutral.

Furthermore, just as divestment from fossil fuels is a political issue, so is our continued investment in them. The money of the fossil fuel industry is at the heart of climate denial. Between 1998 and 2012, ExxonMobil spent $27.4 million supporting climate denying think tanks, research institutes and other organizations. In this same time period, the Koch Brothers added at least $67 million more. Add in some other oil and gas giants and the total goes well into the hundreds of millions. Senator Inhofe alone has received over $1.7 million from the fossil fuel industry over the course of his political career. Investing in these companies lends our tacit support to their political involvement. This makes our continued investment in the fossil fuel industry highly political, an actual endorsement of climate denial.

Divestment is not a radical departure from Carleton’s past actions on climate change. We have expressed commitment to stopping climate change before. We have even committed to spending money on it; the cost of implementing our own Climate Action Plan may well be greater than any financial costs from divestment (which many studies show are minimal or nonexistent). Divestment is about aligning our investments with our institutional values; it is never too late to critically and honestly reevaluate institutional precedent. Divestment is morally consistent with both the positions that Carleton has already taken and the values that we claim to hold.

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