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The Carletonian

The problem with neutrality

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In 2007, then Carleton president Rob Oden signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which stated that Carleton would “exercise leadership in [our] communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize global warming emissions.” This fits with the Carleton we know, a campus that fosters the culture described in the college’s mission statement, one of “academic integrity, civil deliberation, and ethical action.”

At the time, “greening” Carleton’s campus was an admirable way to demonstrate this commitment. In 2016, standards of leadership on climate change have shifted. In addition to its current initiatives, Carleton needs to divest from the fossil fuel industry. This is necessary because we know that demand-side actions like making Carleton carbon neutral do not adequately inspire our communities and elected officials to address climate change and, more importantly, that the fossil fuel industry is exceptionally responsible for impeding action on the issue. Continued investment is therefore an ethical issue of the highest degree. At the very least, divestment is an opportunity to bring the college’s investments in line with its values. It is also an opportunity for Carleton to lead in the manner described by the ACUPCC commitment, pronouncing a necessary message: We cannot be complicit in allowing the fossil fuel industry, whose survival depends on continually burning carbon, to call the shots.

The Board of Trustees is still stuck in a 2007 mindset, as evidenced by their brief and superficial response to the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee’s (CRIC) September report recommending that the College divest from its direct holdings in fossil fuel stocks. The Trustees’ response at best demonstrates a failure to substantively engage with many of the concerns raised in the CRIC report.

What is perhaps most troubling is the Trustees’ suggestion of criteria that prevent Carleton from taking ethical action. They claim that fossil fuel divestment would insert the College inappropriately into political and moral discourses, contending that “nondenominational colleges and universities like Carleton are not political actors that seek to shape directly public policy, nor are they religious organizations that seek to define, promote, and enforce morality.” Are we to understand that Carleton exercises leadership and takes ethical action only if it is apolitical and amoral? If this is the case, Carleton should take down its windmills and abandon current plans for carbon neutrality, because these risk implying that Carleton would support government policies that address climate change. God forbid.

That being said, the goal of remaining on the sidelines of moral and political playing fields, if a desirable one for administrators at our Minnesota colleges and universities, is unattainable. This is highlighted in the CRIC report, which discusses how remaining invested in fossil fuels is itself political in nature because it means supporting an industry that is remarkably active in political arenas. In the words of CRIC, by investing in fossil fuels, Carleton sends a message to its students and our communities that “the behavior of the fossil fuel industry does not rise to a level of ethical compromise deserving of college action.” The fossil fuel industry certainly meets such an ethical bar, given its well-documented role in climate change denialism and its lack of intention to decelerate its core business. The Trustees did not address this in their response, preferring to insist on an imagined stance of political neutrality.

We are in trouble if this is our Carleton. We risk accepting business as usual, because the Trustees believe that a “far more appropriate strategy” is corporate governance, as if shareholder resolutions will convince fossil fuel companies to keep 80% of known reserves in the ground. We risk letting the Trustees sit on their hands while the fossil fuel industry ensures that the planet burns.

Divesting would be part of a college response to climate change that is, to borrow from a heading in the Board of Trustees’ response, truly “effective and mission-appropriate.” If the Board really supports the “culture of…civil deliberation and ethical action” as described in the College’s mission, don’t we at least deserve a more critical conversation with the College’s leadership?



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