Last Sunday, President Christina Paxson of Brown University announced that her university would not divest from the so-called “Filthy 15,” a set of American coal companies with the some of the worst records of pollution and greenhouse emissions.
For many in the worldwide fossil fuel divestment movement, including myself as a member of Fossil Free Yale, the statements were disappointing. For future generations, they will likely mark another sad failure by those in power today to live up to their ethical obligation.
But the problem with Paxson’s decision was not just the outcome itself — it’s that she did not adequately grasp the moral imperative of fossil fuel divestment.
Brown, like Yale, has clearly defined ethical guidelines limiting the activities of its investments office. And as at Yale, those guidelines specify that divestment from a company’s stock is appropriate when, among other conditions, that company is causing “grave social harm.” Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (ACCRIP) found that the “Filthy 15” had engaged in “egregious harmful conduct,” and recommended divestment. But Paxson and the rest of the Brown Corporation disagreed.
Why did the Brown Corporation take the unprecedented step of overruling ACCRIP? Paxson claims that “although the social harm [of burning coal] is clear, this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy.” Burning coal might drive climate change, but there’s a reason we still do it. A world without the energy coal provides, Paxson argues, would not be a world in which we’d choose to live.
Paxson was right, empirically. We are dependent on fossil fuels, for now. But ethically, she was profoundly nearsighted — our dependence is the very problem the divestment movement is trying to tackle. From the latest Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we now know we’re about 22 years from emitting enough to blow past the internationally accepted limit of 2 degrees Celsius warming above preindustrial levels. Climate scientist James Hansen — who recently resigned the directorship of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to focus on climate policy activism — has called a 2 degrees Celsius increase “a prescription for long-term disaster.”
Precisely because coal is so entrenched in the global economy, committing to burn more today without an alternative plan means committing to burn more tomorrow and for years to come. That means committing to a future of droughts, floods and diseases. We might not feel all the social harms of coal right now. But we must still include them in our moral calculus because our decisions today are locking us into a catastrophic future.
Paxson did have a second major argument. She claimed that divestment “would convey only a nebulous statement — that coal is harmful — without speaking to the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal — actions where Brown can make real and important contributions through teaching and research.” But it’s in Paxson’s power to articulate exactly what message Brown’s divestment would carry. If she thinks Brown should speak to the technology and policy of climate change, Paxson could frame divestment to do just that. The same would be true for Yale President Peter Salovey.
And regardless of the complexities of climate change, fossil fuel divestment would still be a deeply meaningful statement. Investment is, by nature, oriented towards the future. By divesting, Brown would have told the world exactly what it needs to hear at this critical juncture: that regardless of all the difficulties of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, today’s coal companies cannot play a responsible role in our near-term energy portfolio. Run through Paxson’s list of the tough questions in energy policy, such as the timing of the transition to renewables and the development of carbon capture and storage, and you won’t find a single one that the decision to divest wouldn’t clarify.
For over a year now, I’ve been working, along with the many other dedicated members of Fossil Free Yale, to develop a divestment proposal that targets those companies emitting the most greenhouse gasses and doing the least to transition to low-carbon technologies. As we’ve sought the endorsement of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, Yale’s equivalent of ACCRIP, we’ve worked to make sure our plan respects the needs of Yale’s endowment, follows our investor responsibility guidelines and takes seriously the nuances of climate change. But all our work will have been for naught if Salovey and the Yale Corporation make the mistake of looking north for guidance when they consider it.
Gabriel Levine is a senior in Trumbull College and the policy coordinator of Fossil Free Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.