Divesting for the future

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” Winston Churchill said this when it became necessary to take action during World War II. It is increasingly clear that we are entering the period of consequences for climate change.

The East Coast is still reeling from the unprecedented destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, which came right on the heels of one of the worst droughts the U.S. has experienced in 50 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 is on track to be the warmest year in the U.S. to date. While no single event can be attributed solely to climate change, the science makes it clear: The burning of fossil fuels is causing climate disruption, including more intense storms like Sandy. For Sandy alone, Forbes estimated that the total damage will be between $30 and $50 billion. As the ocean waters warm and atmospheric temperatures rise, extreme weather events will become more frequently. The earth’s climate has already warmed by 0.8 degrees Centigrade. This number might seem small, but the impacts have been more rapid and more widespread than scientists predicted. We are losing Arctic sea ice and altering the chemistry of our oceans, and we have yet to fully understand how our society will cope with such sudden changes. We simply cannot afford the cost of climate change. In turn, the fossil fuel industries have become increasingly risky investments, endangering our future and financial stability.

The mounting urgency of the climate crisis is clear, yet Congress has repeatedly failed to take action on climate change. Climate change was ignored in the 2012 election cycle and merited little more than half a line in President Obama’s recent victory speech. With the political process stalled, local action by local institutions is the most immediate hope for change. With this in mind, a growing coalition of schools is campaigning to remove their endowments from fossil fuel investments. Led by Bill McKibben and 350.org, over 40 schools, including Amherst, Middlebury and Harvard, are mobilizing to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is not a new tactic – it was a key part of the international campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Sudan. Student demand pushed the College to divest from both of these causes. Today, divestment can be our tool for combating the fossil fuel industry.

Divestment is a particularly apt tactic here at the College, where our endowment is $1.8 billion – one of the largest per capita endowments of any educational institution. We have been researching the endowment for months, yet it remains unclear where the College’s money is invested. What is clear is that some portion of the Williams endowment is invested in coal and other fossil fuels and that such investments contradict our educational mission.

Our liberal arts education does not exist in isolation from the larger world. The College’s mission states, “No one can pretend to more than guess at what students now entering college will be called upon to comprehend in the decades ahead.” The sad truth is that we know at least one great crisis that this generation of students at the College will be called upon to comprehend: climate change. As a campus and individually, it is our responsibility as students to extricate ourselves from the industries that jeopardize our future. It is not enough to act as individuals: We are also obligated to examine the impact of our institution. The College has already made significant commitments to campus sustainability, but we must also simultaneously examine the impact of our endowment. Divestment is not just a chance to remove our endowment from unsustainable investments – it also provides an opportunity to reinvest in the green economy of the future.

Investing in fossil fuels means investing in climate disruption, and investing in climate change means investing in an irresponsible and unsustainable future. We cannot solve this problem overnight, or by ourselves, but we can stop making it worse. Our educations should not fund or be funded by such an unlivable future. Amherst students are demanding that their college divest permanently from direct investments in coal. It is time for Williams to commit to keeping its direct investments free from coal as well. Never one to pass up a challenge from our rivals, the College must also establish a longer-term plan for complete divestment from fossil fuels.

Vera Cecelski ’13 is a political science major from Harlowe, N.C. She lives on Grundy Court. Dana Golden is an environmental policy major from Seattle, Wash. She lives on Latham Street.

  • KC Golden

    Billions of people around the world burn little or no fossil fuel. They have done almost nothing to cause the climate crisis. But because they survive on thin margins already, they are suffering the worst of its consequences.

    As much as the Northeast has suffered from Sandy, similar weather extremes, driven by warming, are much more devastating in areas of the world where basic survival is a struggle. Food shortages loom. Flooding has displaced tens of millions. The human toll is unconscionable, because it is largely preventable.

    The Williams community is blessed with the capacity and the opportunity to help lead the transition to a clean energy future. This transition can prevent disruption to human and natural systems around the world, while opening a path to sustainable, broadly-shared prosperity. We have the technology and the ingenuity to do it. Now we need to muster the courage.

    Young leaders at America’s educational institutions are the clearest moral voice driving this transition. Divestment lights a path forward; redirecting our financial and moral resources away from the problem, and toward our unlimited capacity to drive solutions.

    Delivering these solutions will take sustained focus over a period of decades — a worthy and exciting challenge for today’s students. But we can begin to reduce our contribution to the problem immediately. We can say here and now, “we will not use our financial resources to make it worse.” Indeed, we have no responsible alternative.

    As a Williams parent, I have always been moved by the sense that this place is about something greater than just a solid education — it’s about excellence, integrity, leadership. It’s where the future is coming into view, through the eyes of some its most talented and inspired leaders-to-be. Where better than Williams to face the future squarely, with confidence and determination to deliver real solutions? And who better than Ephs to light the way?

  • anonymous

    Very well written. Bring it on, Williams! – an Amherst student

  • Daphne Wysham

    Thank you for your leadership on this absolutely critical issue–a defining issue of our time and, unless we act aggressively now, for generations to come.

  • Daniel Shearer (’04)

    Williams loves to be ranked number 1. Unity College took that position, but we still have a chance to be a leader by divesting from fossil fuel companies in accordance with the College’s sustainability policy. Take the opportunity now or we’ll be caught with sinking share prices as other colleges lead the way to investing in a livable climate.

  • Anonymous

    Way to go Dana and Vera! Sometimes Williams can be too academic and isolated from the real world. It makes me so happy to see students from my alma mater taking a stand on this crucial issue. What you learn in the classroom should never be meant to stay there. Behind you all the way!

  • Carolyn Reuman ’06

    Nice job Dana and Vera! I hope the College is listening to you, especially now that the New York Times is covering the exciting actions at other small liberal arts colleges. Williams should be right there with ’em.

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  • Julia Isaacs (’82)

    As an alum (’82), I just made my end of year contribution to Williams, and in the “special instructions” box, I put a short (200-character) version of the request that college freeze any new investments in fossil-free companies and divest from all fossil-fuel compies or commingled funds in fossil-fuel investments over the next five years. I then googled around and came across the article (as well as photos of a divestment event in December); I am glad to see there is interest in divestment at Williams, and I hope a divestment campaign builds strength, at Williams and elsewhere.