“The application of negative injunctions, to be sure, will not rebuild cities or make deserts bloom,” The Ethical Investor, Yale’s guidelines for investment, reads. “But it can limit or halt the destruction of life, of opportunity and of beauty.”
Today, we face falling cities and drier deserts, demolished homes and ruined lives. And Yale, with its institutional power and endowment, can help to limit these injuries. This week, the student body must vote to divest from the worst fossil fuel companies.
The goal of Yale’s divestment is symbolic: It will have an almost negligible financial impact on the fossil fuel companies. But since only eight other colleges — whose combined endowment amounts to about a hundredth of Yale’s — have divested, our decision to divest will open up a social space for other institutions to follow suit. Humanity needs to make strides away from fossil fuels as much as we need to use fossil fuels for the immediate future.
While Brown and Harvard’s administrators have rejected divestment proposals, Yale’s administrators have no reason to follow their lead. Our plan is much more conservative. A vote to divest would mean to follow Fossil Free Yale’s proposal, which sets a timeframe allowing companies to disclose and enact a plan to reduce emissions — and most importantly, only targets the worst carbon emitters among the top 200 list.
Under The Ethical Investor’s guidelines, Yale must divest when our investments are causing “grave social injury.” The University’s responsibility is determined by four criteria: need, proximity, capability and last resort. In the 1970s, the University fulfilled this responsibility by divesting from companies engaging with apartheid South Africa, and in 2006 from Sudanese government bonds and seven oil companies operating there.
Climate change is less visually disturbing than political violence. But as the recent Typhoon Haiyan can attest, it is inflicting real injury on human lives. About 500,000 humans die each year from the effects of climate change, particularly those living in the globe’s most vulnerable communities. There is a clear need for action.
Divestment also fulfills the other three criteria — and a practical function. We are in a unique position to pioneer a new front on an existing powerful environmental movement.
Contrary to popular belief, divestment will have minimal impact on the endowment. A key study by Aperio Group conservatively estimates a loss of less than a standard deviation in their model.
Neither will divestment politicize our endowment. Divesting is an acknowledgement of the scientifically proven link between carbon emissions and climate change, not an endorsement of policy. There is a difference between a negative injunction and a positive duty; we are not promoting sponsorship of green companies.
It is rightly concerning that we are focusing on fossil fuels while our University may be investing in companies — tobacco, firearm, Congolese minerals — that more clearly constitute damage. As a result, we wish there were a mechanism to regularly review the social harm of all the businesses in which we invest.
But inaction on other issues does not preclude us from acting, in this instance, to right a wrong.
In an opportunity that hinges on 50 percent turnout, to squander an opportunity to vote — and to lead this movement at such a critical juncture — would be a disappointing failure on our part.