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The Carletonian

Celebrating 150 years amidst climate change

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-97c4df5f-c448-9f28-33c7-4d890a9ad746">In 1992, in celebration of Carleton’s 125th birthday, former Carleton Dean of Men Merrill Jarchow wrote a book on Carleton’s 25 years between 1966 and 1992. He called the book Carleton Moves Confidently into its Second Century. Now we are at the 150th birthday and if one were to write a similar book today, a more appropriate title might be Carleton Moves Timidly and Reluctantly into a Turbulent Second 150 Years.

No issue, barring a nuclear holocaust, will impact the life of the college and its constituencies more over the coming years than climate change. As is now well known, climate change will increase global poverty and injustice and lead to widespread ecological destruction. If we don’t move rapidly to a low carbon future, the results for life on the planet will be calamitous. Scientists are virtually unanimous on this verdict. Furthermore, we now know that avoiding calamity will require a much-restricted global carbon budget. This means leaving something like 80 percent of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

The College has recognized the threat of climate change and taken laudable steps to reduce the College’s carbon footprint and to integrate issues of climate change into its curriculum and research agenda. However, these actions are not enough. The College must also recognize that as long as we supply capital to the fossil fuel industry and depend on profits from it, tacitly giving our approval to its behavior, we are not being true to our own mission nor are we doing all we can to address the problem of climate change.

Most on campus recognize this. In rejecting divestment, the Trustees are badly out of step with widely held values, as evidenced by a virtually unanimous vote of support for divestment from the Carleton Student Association, a faculty letter signed by over 60 members, hundreds of petition signatures from students and alumni, and, most importantly, the unanimous recommendation of the Board’s own advisory group, the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC).

A campus survey done last spring for CRIC displays the gap between the Board’s thinking and campus opinion. The survey showed overwhelming support from all college constituencies for taking “political, moral, or ethical considerations into account when making investment decisions, even if doing so were to result in a lower return for the endowment.” Of the groups sampled, 100% of the faculty, 85.7% of alumni, 82.4% of students and 80% of staff supported taking these factors into account. (A fuller report on the survey, conducted by Carleton statistics students, is available on the CRIC web site).

In contrast to this broad support for including moral factors in investment decisions, the Board, in rejecting divestment, stated:

“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. The delicate niche a college like ours occupies in society can be easily damaged and its credibility harmed if it is perceived as exceeding its proper mission.”

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this statement is its timidity and reluctance to take moral positions. Climate change requires moral responsibility and bold actions that do have the potential to affect public policy. It requires more than business as usual. The paralysis implied by the term “delicate niche” is inappropriate in this context. The Board made no attempt to defend the practices of the fossil fuel industry as morally acceptable. It simply concluded that our situation is too delicate to consider moral concerns in making investment decisions.

The fact is that there can be little doubt that the fossil fuel industry, in light of the need to keep 80% of reserves in the ground, is a villain here. The business plans of these companies call for continuing to fully exploit known reserves and to spend millions searching for more. Furthermore, they support public campaigns to sow confusion and doubt about climate change while spending millions to elect and lobby public officials who will support fossil fuel subsidies and oppose measures designed to hasten the low carbon transition. These are not the kinds of companies that Carleton should support with its investments.

As we celebrate our sesquicentennial, we must be concerned with the College’s reluctance to act on what will be the defining challenge of the next 50 years. We need a robust discussion of the gap between the campus and the Trustees. To date, the Board has been unwilling to help support this discussion and debate. While CRIC recommended a special campus-wide committee process to study divestment, the Board chose to limit the process to exchanges between CRIC and the Board’s Investment Committee. When students asked President Poskanzer and then Board Chair Eugster to participate in a campus town meeting on divestment, the President flatly refused. Most recently, the administration has stopped listing the membership of Trustee Committees on the Trustee web site, although the members of the Investment Committee are now posted on the Investment Office web site. Other Committees remain unlisted.

As Carleton begins its second 150 years, we can either emerge as a leader in the fight against climate change or we can play it safe, stick to business as usual, and stay in our “delicate niche.” We can hope that through a robust campus debate over divestment, we can make the right choice and when an author looks back from our bicentennial in 2066 the title can be something like Carleton Moves Confidently into its Third Century. This will depend on how we, as a College, decide to act on climate change.

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