Called to action by the climate strike: The College must divest

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Friday’s climate strike at the College and the broader Global Climate Strike movement call attention to the necessity for leaders to take meaningful action on the climate crisis. We thank the organizers of the strike for their work in forefronting this issue in campus consciousness. Additionally, we recognize the importance of incorporating voices from the broader community – particularly those of younger generations – into this discussion; we hope their efforts will not only inform individual decision-making but also compel us toward a long-standing student goal: divesting the College’s endowment from fossil fuels.

Divestment has held significant student support in recent years, due in no small part to a student activist movement that began in 2013 as the Williams Divest Coal Campaign and later continued as Divest Williams. In a 2015 College Council referendum, 946 students of 1336 students who voted (70.81 percent) favored divestment. Yet the Board of Trustees rejected divestment in 2016, and a statement by trustee O. Andreas Halvorsen ’86 at the Oct. 15, 2016, open forum suggested the Board would no longer consider divestment as an option.

There is widespread scientific consensus, though, that humans contribute to warming trends in the Earth’s climate, and the burning of fossil fuels – which releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – is a primary contributor. For leadership on divestment, we need to look no further than one of our closest peer institutions: Middlebury unveiled a plan in February to fully divest from fossil fuels within 15 years. 

Its board of trustees had rejected divestment in 2013, citing uncertainty about alternative investment opportunities, but the board voted unanimously in support of divestment this year.  In an interview with The Middlebury Campus, Middlebury President Laurie Patton billed divestment as the responsible choice, even if it came with uncertainties over how it would unfold.

“This plan is true to Middlebury’s culture and values,” Patton said. “It acknowledges that we do not have all the solutions at our disposal at this moment to meet these goals, but it commits us to make every effort to do so.

We recognize that divestment is a process that requires copious planning, but the College has already begun this process. The College no longer has direct holdings in fossil fuels, and it seeks to make investments in environmentally friendly companies, as described by Chair of the Board of Trustees Michael Eisenson ’77 in an Oct. 5, 2016, op-ed (“Green financing: The College’s investment in reversing climate change”). The College is furthermore working towards its 2020 sustainability goals, which we encourage it to meet with minimal use of carbon offsets, which displace the responsibility to reduce emissions away from the College itself. This is not the full extent of the work that must be done, though.

Full divestment, including of blended funds, would continue the College’s progress in diverting its endowment from investments in fossil fuels. Committing to full divestment, moreover, is in line with the goal of “integrating sustainability throughout the institution” as outlined in the strategic planning process’ sustainability working group. “Integrating sustainability” means removing its endowment from industries that are not sustainable.

The climate crisis is already contributing to changes in the environment with effects on human life: Land degradation displaces farmers, heat waves produce deadly heat strokes, wildfires contribute to respiratory illnesses, and hurricanes destroy homes. These impacts often reinforce existing inequalities, inflicting outsize harms on indigenous peoples, low-income communities and those in developing countries, amongst other marginalized groups.

As such, the worst effects of the climate crisis will likely be realized far from the College’s campus, but the College ought not remain complicit in an industry that profits through means that harm all present and future generations. What we can do to solve this global issue may be limited, but full divestment is a solution at our fingertips that would, at the very least, reduce our role in accelerating the global climate crisis.

The editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record’s editorial board.