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The Carletonian

Letter to the Editors: The administration must take a stronger stance on climate change

Y September 30 editorial, “Administration Must Take Stronger Stances” strongly resonated with me. As an alum active with Divest Carleton, I empathize with your critique of the administration’s institutional timidity. Your perspective matches what I have experienced with the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Experience to date is that this institutional timidity will be hard to change without significant pressure from college constituencies.

Part of what makes change difficult is that the College typically makes some moves in the right direction. On climate, for example, laudable steps have been taken to reduce Carleton’s on-campus carbon footprint. The administration will point to these efforts whenever divestment is proposed. However, the administration has been unwilling to take a next step and challenge the morally problematic actions of the fossil fuel industry. This is despite widespread campus support for divestment and the unanimous divestment recommendation from the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC), the College’s designated body for providing ethical investment guidance.

In making its recommendation in September of 2015, CRIC extensively documented industry efforts to slow the transition to a low carbon future. The industry spends millions of dollars to elect climate deniers, to lobby against federal and state efforts to move to a low carbon economy, and to sow doubt in the public mind about the reality of climate change. These are not companies in which Carleton should be investing. Clearly, CRIC’s arguments were not enough.

In explaining its refusal to divest, the administration did not defend industry ethics. Rather it ducked the moral issue by citing the “delicate niche” which Carleton occupies, arguing that colleges such as Carleton are not “political actors” seeking to shape public policy nor “religious organizations” that seek to affect morality. This concept of a “delicate niche” needs to be unpacked and challenged.

The administration apparently believes that the College can avoid controversy and politics by keeping its head down. In a March 2, 2015 memo to CRIC, Wallace Weitz (then Chair of the Trustee Investment Committee and now Chair of the Full Board) wrote:
“Carleton’s Board and more generally, the College as an institution has a long history of being reluctant to take positions on issues that are not clearly academic and directly pertain to and materially advance its educational mission. We are very circumspect about inserting the College into public and political debates about what is moral and correct. Thus, as you know, Carleton did not divest from all South-Africa related stocks in the apartheid era, and the College has rejected calls for divestment on many other topics (Sudan, tobacco related stocks) over subsequent years.”

There are two problems with this position. One is that, as you point out in your editorial, “silence is just as political as action.”  By choosing to continue to hold fossil fuel stocks, in the context of a global movement to divest, the College aligns itself with that industry. Second, as you point out, “In an age of daily threats to hard fought civil rights and empirical facts, an absence of moral commentary is simply unacceptable.” In the present moment, as strongly held values and solid science are being challenged in the political sphere, it is critical that Carleton speak out. This is surely part of our educational mission.
As you argue in the editorial, the College should take stronger stands on a myriad of issues both on and off the campus. Specifically on climate change, we believe that the College should divest. But there are additional ways to take a stronger stand. One is to join the “We are Still In” movement begun after the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The second is to support the “Put a Price on it” campaign supporting a tax on carbon emissions as a key to slowing climate change. Many academic institutions have taken these actions. Carleton has taken neither.

The Trustees are on campus this weekend. They set broad policies for action. They should hear from students and others regarding the need for stronger ethical action by the College. Whether the issue is racism, sexual violence, immigration, hate incidents, climate change, or others, Carleton needs to stand up more clearly for what is right. Achieving this will take pressure. So, this weekend if you can, track down a Trustee and tell them your concerns. Even better, start a campaign or join one, like Divest Carleton, to multiply your influence. While the issues may be many, the basic message starts at the same place: don’t duck hard ethical issues, stand for what is right.

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