A step in the right direction

President Falk and the Williams Board of Trustees announced their response to calls to divest from stakes in fossil fuel companies. The College, which holds directly no shares of 200 fossil fuel firms, concluded that it could not extract fossil fuel companies from its commingled investments without unacceptable costs to the College.

Instead, the College has moved aggressively to adopt policies and programs that relate directly to the issue of climate change: begin immediately to divest from the use of fossil fuels. The emission-reductions goals to which the College has committed exceed national and international standards both in extent of heat-trapping emission reductions and the speed with which they will be achieved.

In meeting its goals, the College will ultimately drive its net emissions to zero through a combination of energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy installations and off-site actions that will directly benefit the local community. Future capital investments will have “impact criteria” to ensure that they will have positive climate, environmental and social outcomes. Finally, the College is creating two new faculty positions in the fields of climate science and associated social science.

While this approach does not meet the requested outcome of the immediate and total fossil fuel divestment of fossil fuel investments sought by the divestment movement, the program the College has announced goes to the heart of the matter: committing to urgent actions to address climate change in significant ways that will engage the entire College community.

As long as markets for fossil fuels grow, the value of fossil fuel company stocks will grow. The key to divestment by all investors is to cause a decline and ultimately the replacement of fossil fuel energy systems with alternative energy systems and conservation. This is where the College’s policy leads and underpins the program: to reduce, immediately, and move toward ending fossil fuel use. As momentum builds and spreads throughout the society to that end, fossil fuel stocks will decline in value and managers of co-mingled funds will extract fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios. The objective is to invest only in those energy companies that move our and the globe’s energy systems to those that are not carbon-based. The College’s commitment in that direction is to be applauded. It represents a challenge, first to other institutions of higher education and second to the society at large.

So has the divestment movement at the College been a success or failure? There is certain to be disagreement over this question. In our view, many fossil fuel companies have been highly irresponsible by creating doubt about climate science (a la the cigarette industry) and the means of addressing it through deliberate false claims. This is reason enough for educational institutions to avoid investing in firms that are so antithetical to the values that inform academia. Then there are the additional fossil fuel externalities of countless annual pollution deaths, health impairments, debilitating diseases, land and ecosystem destruction, water pollution and the source of international conflicts.

The divestment campaign has highlighted the ethical issues as well as the devastating consequences for the climate associated with the use of fossil fuels and called for institutions to sell their interests in the companies involved. There is a strong case to be made for doing so and the College is making several moves in that direction.

In short, those who have been pushing for stock divestment have done a major service in bringing the College to this point. President Falk and the Trustees have made a vigorous and effective response. All deserve our gratitude and engagement in meeting the goals set forth. If these efforts succeed and others follow suit, it is only a matter of time before fossil fuel company stock becomes a worthless investment.

Bill Moomaw ’59 is a former Professor of Chemistry at the College and former Director of the Center for Environmental Studies and has worked since 1988 on climate change. He was the first Director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and served as lead author of five Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change Reports. Tom Jorling is a former Professor at the College and former Director of the Center for Environmental Studies, a principal staff author of the Clean Air and Water Acts and has served as Assistant Administrator of the U.S. EPA during the Carter Administration and as Commissioner of the N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation. 

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