Political action most effective in pushing for fossil fuel divestment: experts

Media Credit: File Photo by Jack Borowiak | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Divestment experts said higher education institutions should be at the vanguard of the sustainability movement, but some said divesting from the industry is not a sufficient countermeasure to climate change.

Officials and students have clashed for years over divesting from the fossil fuel industry, but the University has not made any commitments to retract its holdings.

Students’ most recent push to divest GW’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry came late last month in a letter from Sunrise GW, a student-led environmental activism group previously called Fossil Free GW. The letter was endorsed by 20 other student organizations, including Green GW and the Progressive Student Union.

The letter follows a yearslong effort at GW and all of its peer schools to press officials to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment experts said higher education institutions should be at the vanguard of the sustainability movement, but some said divesting from the industry is not a sufficient countermeasure to climate change and could shrink university endowments.

“Educational institutions and higher education institutions exist to prepare students and young people for future, and any investment ties with fossil fuel companies is contradictory to a safe and livable future that universities are attempting to prepare their students for,” Lindsay Meiman, a media representative from pro-divestment advocacy group 350.org, said. 

Members of Sunrise GW have lobbied in favor of divestment since 2013. In 2017, about 30 members of Fossil Free GW held two silent protests during meetings with the Board of Trustees.

More than 70 percent of students voted in favor of divestment, but officials said divestment is not part of GW’s investment strategy and stated they would prioritize maintaining a sustainable investment portfolio. The Student Association Senate also voted in 2016 to support divesting the University’s holdings in fossil fuels.

In 2018, student leaders worked with the Board of Trustees to create a $2 million environmentally friendly investment fund.

The University does not release specifics of its investment profile, including whether funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.

Student activists on college campuses across the country have made a similar push, successfully lobbying schools like Stanford University to divest. More than 175 educational institutions have moved to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, according to Go Fossil Free, a pro-divestment organization.

Of GW’s 12 peer institutions, Syracuse University is the only school that The Hatchet has confirmed has divested its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Georgetown University divested from direct investment in coal companies in 2015.

Two schools – Tufts and New York universities – announced on their websites that officials do not intend to divest the institutions’ holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

Northeastern, Tulane and Wake Forest universities and the universities of Miami, Pittsburgh, Rochester and Southern California do not specifically describe their stance on fossil fuel divestment on their websites.

One of Boston University’s “fundamental” goals is to allow individuals to freely discuss social and political issues, and divestment could “risk undermining” that goal, according to a memo sent to the school’s advisory committee on socially responsible investing.

“Therefore, non-investment or divestment actions based on social or political principles should be very rare and occur in only the clearest of circumstances, and should be judged to withstand the test of time in terms of how the wisdom of the University’s decision will be judged by future generations,” the memo states.

Divestment experts said all higher education institutions should prioritize sustainability efforts but added that universities hold differing opinions on whether divestment would significantly impact the fossil fuel industry’s activity.

Bradford Cornell, a professor of financial economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, said engaging in political activism would be the most effective way for universities to combat the climate crisis. He said university endowments require a diverse set of investments in order to raise funds, and divesting from the fossil fuel industry would limit their dividends.

“A fossil-free portfolio will hurt your investment,” Cornell said. “They have it and that means they’re taking advantage of diversification.”

Meiman, the 350.org representative, said GW needs to make an “immediate” commitment to divestment to tackle the climate crisis. She said the environmental harm that stems from fossil fuel extraction practices are costly, and institutions that refuse to divest from the industry are “directly” investing in that destruction.

“It’s getting extremely costly to actually mitigate and adapt and recover from these fossil fuel-driven disasters,” Meiman said.

She added that higher education institutions should invest in sectors like renewable energy and infrastructure to counteract the environmental harm of fossil fuel corporations.

Meiman said half of the universities in the United Kingdom have committed to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry. She said major asset managers and institutions – like Abrasca, a Brazilian nonprofit – are moving toward divestment because of public pressure.

“And because of that, they will be shifting their investment strategies to consider the climate crisis and its impact,” Meiman said.

John Jurewitz, a professor of economics at Pomona College, said divestment could result in a decrease in the University’s endowment. He said fossil fuel companies usually comprise about 10 to 12 percent of universities’ investment portfolios and produce “very high” dividends.

Jurewitz said divestment itself will have little impact on the fossil fuel industry’s stock. He said fossil fuel companies are able to fund themselves, and other investors will repurchase abandoned stock if the University divests.

Jurewitz added that political action – like supporting carbon pricing, or levying a tax on carbon emissions – in tandem with divestment will place financial pressure on the fossil fuel industry.

“Most campuses are installing solar panels and doing energy efficiency bill investments in their buildings, get question about question about ting certain buildings up LEED certification and some other things like that,” Jurewitz said. “Those are all constructive steps. And I think that they’re more constructive than divestment.”

Shannon Mallard contributed reporting.

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