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Colleges Divest from Fossil Fuels

J. Mijin Cha

When we talk about leveling the playing field for energy solutions, we often talk about how fossil fuels receive the lion’s share of federal subsidies even though they continually post record profits. The renewable energy sector, in contrast, continually faces uncertainty over future funding. This disparity forces the renewable energy sector to constantly be at a disadvantage and makes it easy for critics to falsely claim that renewables will never perform as well as fossil fuels.

Support for the fossil fuel industry, however, goes beyond just federal support. The industry also receive millions, if not billions, of dollars in outside investment money, including investments from university endowments. A new campaign is underway, led by the Responsible Endowments Coalition, Sierra Student Coalition, Energy Action Coalition, California Student Sustainability Coalition, and, to stop this pipeline of support and divest university endowment funds from fossil fuel companies. Yesterday, Unity College in Maine announced that its Board of Trustees had voted to divest from fossil fuels and become the first to join the campaign. In addition. last year Hampshire College in Massachusetts passed a sustainable investment policy that effectively divested endowment funds from fossil fuels.

University endowments across the U.S. total $400 billion. Investing that money responsibly would have a significant positive impact and divesting that money from fossil fuels sends a strong message. In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement successfully used divestment as a key tactic to pressure the South African government. At that time, universities claimed divestment was not possible because their investments were internal, highly sensitive financial decision. Yet, ultimately, the campaign grew so strong that the reputation of institutions still supporting the apartheid government was at risk.

Likewise, public sentiment and recognition of the damage done by the fossil fuel industry will lead to a broad call for divestment. The challenges of climate change are becoming too great and the public wants action. There was a strong backlash against the climate silence during the presidential campaign and a Rasumussen poll conducted a day before the election found that 68 percent of American voters said that global warming was a serious problem. In 2009, only 46 percent of Americans believed so.  Hurricane Sandy also reaffirms the belief that not only is the climate changing but the window for action is rapidly closing.

There is no shortage of responsible companies in which endowment monies could be invested. There is a rise in the number of companies, like Ben and Jerry’s that are choosing to do more than just maximize their profits. The Benefit Corporations (B-Corps) movement promotes using business to solve environmental and social problems by adhering to strong labor, environmental, and community standards while still making profit. Currently, over 600 companies certified as B- Corps.

Responsible investing provides support for businesses trying to do more than just make money. And, as places of learning and development, it is right that University’s lead the charge. Let’s hope Unity College and Hampshire College are just the first of many taking this step.