Letter to the Editor: An alumnus speaks: Divest

To the Editor:

In concert with the Williams Endowment Initiative and Divest Williams, I welcome the Record’s endorsement of fossil fuel divestment. The editorial board is absolutely right that the College needs to make “a real change,” but I worry that the board’s recommendation stops short of that goal.

When I began considering how alumni could mobilize our Williams community to more effectively address climate change, our conversations on divestment were often framed by the question, “Is this the best solution?” I now believe that was the wrong question.

As I read increasingly alarming reports about the acceleration of climate change, and as I consider how little the global community has accomplished over the last two decades, it is clear that we need to reframe this entire conversation. There is no single best solution. Meaningful climate action – real change – requires that we take every reasonable opportunity to reduce climate-disrupting emissions. To stop the rising waters that threaten coastal communities, to slow ocean acidification that undermines food webs and to reduce food producers’ exposure to devastating drought, we must take advantage of easy opportunities and dig into hard opportunities that have trade-offs.

The Record is right that Williams needs to cultivate its finances to ensure that a Williams education is broadly accessible. They’re also right that we can offer reliable data illustrating that fossil-free portfolios offer high performance with less risk. But more important than this data is the moral argument. What good is a Williams education if it can only be provided at the expense of future generations’ and vulnerable populations’ well-being? What good is a Williams education if it requires that we perpetrate and perpetuate what many call the human rights challenge of our time?

That trade-off is patently unacceptable.

I encourage the Williams community to think carefully about what constitutes real change. The greatest promise of Williams divesting is that it lays the groundwork for others to follow suit. If we divest only within the small portion of the endowment that Williams manages directly, we give up on that broader promise. But if Williams joins other large investors to demand that fund managers adapt to a changing world, we blaze a trail. That is real change. That is real leadership. And that is only possible when we embrace divestment fully, across our entire endowment.

So yes, let’s investigate the opportunities and costs of divestment, but let’s also reframe this investigation, asking not, “Is divestment too costly?” but rather, “How can we securely restructure our investments so they do not harm future students and alumni?”

My Williams education taught me to approach problems creatively, not accepting the way they are presented to us and not shutting down in the face of obstacles. Our community is full of innovators and leaders, and we can surely find a way forward that will use our endowment to support accessible, exceptional education without compromising our moral responsibilities.

Daniel Shearer ’04

Williams Endowment Initiative Member