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The Carletonian

CRIC issues divestment recommendation

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When members of the Board of Trustees arrive on campus on Oct 22, they will for the first time address the question: Is it time for fossil fuel divestment at Carleton?

Divest Carleton, the student arm of a coalition of divestment advocacy groups on campus that also includes alumni and faculty, has been engaging students and garnering support for fossil fuel divestment for two years. The group has assembled a petition with signatures representing over one-third of the student body, according to copresident Soren Schlassa ‘18.

Between two-thirds and three- quarters of students asked to sign the petition do so, he estimated. “Right now, what’s limiting the size of the petition is not the support for divestment but our resources.”

At the end of fall term last year, the CSA Senate unanimously passed a resolution in support of divestment, written by Divest Carleton, then known as the Climate Justice Coalition.

Divest Carleton then took its message to the administration but with little success. Granted a 45-minute meeting with President Poskanzer in the spring, the group brought a letter requesting that he take a position on fossil divestment. As a nonvoting member of the Board, he gracefully declined.

But Divest Carleton was also thinking beyond the headlines. In the winter, they met unofficially with the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC), a committee of students, staff, and faculty that “[makes] recommendations about the management of the endowment to the Board of Trustees that embody Carleton’s values” and serves as the liaison between the student body and the Board’s Investment Committee. The two groups then met officially in the spring, when CRIC began formally studying divestment.

When the divestment movement started two years ago, CRIC released a statement of neutrality and a commitment issue in more depth. During Winter term 2015, CRIC presented a series of recommended actions the Board could take to investigate the potential impacts of divestment on the college. The Board rejected them in March.

On the Board’s recommendation, CRIC spent spring term investigating the issue itself. At the end of the term, seven of CRIC’s eight members voted in support of divestment. The eighth member voted in support of a more limited form of divestment.

On September 25, CRIC sent the Board’s Investment Committee and its chair Wally Weitz ‘70 a “Report and Recommendation on Fossil Fuel Divestment and ESG Investing.” “The members of CRIC have come to believe that the connection between fossil fuel companies and climate change does in fact make holding stock in these companies ethically problematic,” the report states, endorsing fossil fuel divestment.”

Representatives of the college have argued that the endowment should not be a political tool, but Divest Carleton’s Schlassa argues that divestment is not a political issue at all. “The college has already been political by recognizing the existence of climate change and the contributions that humans are making to it,” he said.

“What’s not political is going from the recognition that we have a huge crisis on our hands to the realization that we need to do something about it in a way that’s louder than just changing some of our energy practices on campus. That’s not a political transition; that’s just a very simple moral conclusion to reach,” he said.

“At this point the college cannot avoid making some kind of statement on climate change and fossil fuel investments, either explicitly or tacitly,” the CRIC report states.

CRIC and student co-chair Anil Methipara ‘16 argues that both climate change and divestment are political issues, but says that non-divestment is just as political as divestment.

“I think the fundamental issue is… what is the moral argument against fossil fuel companies?

Their product does have a social benefit, and it also has a very detrimental cost” he added.

While Menthipara is willing to concede that the question is challenging, he says it does not excuse the Board, saying “I want them to address the specific question of their thoughts on the morality of fossil fuel companies.”

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is how divestment would affect Carleton’s endowment. The best indicator may be in CRIC’s report, which concludes, “We predict that the financial risk of fossil fuel divestment from Carleton’s direct holdings in bound to be relatively low, if not negligible.” CRIC’s logic stems from the understanding that only about $4.3 million was invested in fossil fuel companies as of June 2015, representing 3.2% of the college’s direct holdings or just over 0.5% of the total endowment.

In the March letter to CRIC, Investment Committee Chair Weitz laid out four pieces of guidance to inform CRIC’s deliberations. “The Board,” he wrote, “will focus on the effectiveness and impact of any proposed divestment, inquiring what result(s) the College would seek to achieve through such action and whether/how divestment would actually be effective in attaining those results [emphasis removed].”

CRIC has yet to finalize a meeting with the Investment Committee, but Methipara is optimistic one will be arranged. The goal is “making sure they understand what are argument is and not brushing it aside,” he said. “I think they are very strong on their view that we shouldn’t be divesting, [but] I want them to actually read the report and come up with a thorough response to it.”

Divest Carleton will not be in the room – “You can’t fight them on all the rules,” Schlassa said – but the group has big ideas for the trustees’ visit, which include sending postcards to members of the Investment Committee and plans for various public displays of support. The group might also try to catch trustees between meetings in Sayles, Schlassa mentioned.

Divest Carleton’s priority is to make the trustees feel unable to ignore the divestment movement. “I think if I were in their place, whether I’d ignore it depends on my perception of if I were allowed to ignore it,” Schlassa said. “So I sure hope they’re not able to ignore it.”

The Board’s communication with CRIC suggests that the response will likely come in a letter, at least a month after their visit to campus. The question is what that letter will say. The CRIC report offers an acceptable, though not ideal, possibility that the Investment Committee rejects divestment but accepts an approach known as ESG investing, which includes environmental, social, and corporate governance as risk factors in making investment decisions. If ESG is effective, it could eliminate altogether the need for divestment and the fraught political debate by integrating principles of environmentalism into the college’s investment strategy.

Divest Carleton discussed ESG with CRIC and would see the adoption of an ESG policy as progress though not as an acceptable substitute for divestment. “It lacks the symbolic weight of divestment and is thus far less effective at combating climate change,” Schlassa said.

Is the Board of Trustees about to agree to fossil fuel divestment? There’s not a lot of optimism. “I’d put that chance … somewhere between 10 and 20 percent that they say, ‘Okay, let’s divest,” Schlassa predicts. “If I were to say yes or no, I would think no,” Methipara added.

Both Methipara and Schlassa are already thinking about next steps for Carleton’s divestment movement. Does that mean more banners and picket signs? “I don’t think so,” said Methipara said that this does not mean more banners and picket signs, saying that “picket signs won’t convince the Board that fossil fuel companies are bad actors.”

As for Divest Carleton, “We’re not in the early stages of this campaign, but there’s still work to be done,” said Schlassa. “And if we get a no now, that’s just going to be the fuel for the campaign that we need to get a yes.”

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