In defense of divestment

Divesting endowment money from fossil fuels seems risky: If we stop investing in successful companies, will the returns on our endowment diminish? Would this change mean less financial aid and other support for students? While these concerns deserve discussion, divestment has proven itself to be a safe financial move. The investment firm Green Century Funds, for example, provides two fossil-fuel-free plans with “competitive” returns, according to their website. In addition, comparable institutions like Stanford have divested from coal and fossil fuels without a significant financial cost. Lastly, the divestment movement only asks Williams to divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies commonly accepted as the worst offenders.

Not divesting, I would argue, is far more risky. Divestment is a symbolic move, but it is a chance to demand change from policy-makers. This large-scale change is necessary because we live in a structure that favors fossil fuels and because fossil fuels threaten lives.

I’ll start with the ways in which these fuels harm life. Climate change is not simply a polar bear issue or even simply a matter of melting ice. The extra heat that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide add to the atmosphere hurts Maine lobster fishers who are now noticing lobsters swimming to colder waters. The rise in sea level from ice melt harms people in the South who cannot afford to deal with more flooding or the loss of their land. Fossil fuels in high concentrations also decrease air quality and respiratory health. Even if these issues – and the many more I did not include – do not affect you personally, fossil fuels push the planet to its limits for sustaining life. If you plan on having children, they might see the effects of fossil fuels in ways we never imagined.

However, you may ask, why not instead switch Williams to green energy? Wouldn’t that have a bigger impact?

I would respond, “Why not do both?” Of course, this move would take time, but I mean to say that both together would ultimately be necessary to maintain life on this planet. For now, however, divestment would call on political institutions to make regulations that could change the whole power grid. If we put a price on carbon, for example, power companies would feel an incentive to use less fossil fuels. This change could manifest itself in energy efficiency or green energy but would in either case reduce a lot of emissions. This type of regulation would also press oil companies to increase efficiency, especially because their practices create pollution for the sake of economy. In order to make nation-wide change, we need political, rather than just personal action – though individual action would be great too!

You may then ask, how are we going to make this political change when legislation is so slow?

Though one institution can be a drop in the bucket, a number one institution would certainly not go unnoticed. Additionally, as more and more institutions divest, government officials will realize that voters do not like fossil fuels. Even if we are just a drop, each drop gets the water closer to the top, and each voice gives politicians more pressure – and incentive – to act.

Divestment is a symbol that will not destroy fossil fuel companies directly but will give voice to the wishes of Williams students who want a world for the future. When we sell fossil fuel companies’ stocks, other investors will buy those stocks, making the companies’ losses nil. However, when Williams College says it divested from fossil fuels, it means we as an institution will not idly condone their dangerous practices. It means that we as college students demand lives that will not be cut short by our planet’s destruction. It means that we as possible future parents do not want our children to suffer or die prematurely. It means that we as human beings do not want to be the species that eradicates other plants and animals.

I hope it also means that we are committed to making our individual actions even more sustainable.

So what are the risks of not divesting? Most obviously, that our voices will remain silenced. It is possible that our country’s fossil-fuel-dependent structure will keep our attempts at efficiency from actually helping the planet. Nonetheless, right now, by using fossil fuels, we are risking lives in other places. In the future, we who have the privilege of living in the Purple Valley will be risking our own.

Christine Pash ’18 is from Gaithersburg, Md. She lives in Sage.

  • Simon Bedford

    Oh dear!

    Of course a green energy group claims they have competitive returns. All financial advisers claim that. What are they? For how long? What is their volatility? I saw a diet pill the other day that claimed on its website it will help you lose weight. All fat people should try it!

    Stanford divested from direct investments in coal only. They only did this recently. This is a specific change made recently and far too early to make the claim that it has had no impact on their returns.

    I respect people’s right to make a philosophical or ethical case about fossil fuels but leave the investment side to the experts. It helps no-one to make ill informed claims about investment impacts.

    • Daniel Shearer

      There are examples that show a fossil free portfolio can perform just as strongly or better over the last decade. Here’s one example: http://fossilfreeindexes.com/fossil-free-indexes-us

      But more important is that the assertion that we can separate ethics and investments is false. All of our investment decisions are tied to our ethics. Which is why divestment is worth serious consideration for the Williams community.