Yale talks referenda: Point


One of the joke headlines in this year’s parody issue of the News was “YCC does something.” But now, that may not be such a joke — the Yale College Council is doing something, and they’re asking us to take part. Next week, every student at Yale has the opportunity to vote in a YCC referendum on fossil fuel divestment.

The rationale behind divestment is this: Yale, by investing its money in the fossil fuel industry, ignores the grave harm that the industry does to humanity and the climate. Yale has ethical investment guidelines which led it to divest twice before — first, from companies related to the South African apartheid; second, from Sudanese oil and government bonds. Now, the Yale Corporation’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility is considering divesting from the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel companies.

The actual process of divestment is nuanced, and will require a continuing dialogue between administrators and students. Nevertheless, this is the moment when Yale students have their chance to weigh in on the process with a simple yes or no. While the student body’s decision isn’t binding, our voice, for once, is incredibly important.

What does a “Yes” vote entail? “Yes” is an affirmation of a belief in Yale’s power as an institution to create political change; “Yes” is a plea for redoubled attention to our suffering climate. Most of all, “Yes” is an understanding that the politics of the Corporation should include a seat for students at the discussion table.

With the YCC referendum, for the first time in recent memory, every Yale student will have a chance to engage the Corporation through their vote. The Corporation has had, at times, an uneasy relationship with the student body: consider last year’s opaque presidential search or the protests about financial aid in 2005. In both cases, students weren’t sure how to reach administrators, and the Corporation wasn’t prepared to listen. When the ACIR asked Fossil Free Yale to demonstrate student support for divestment through a referendum, they were tacitly agreeing to engage with the student body in a way that just hasn’t been happening lately.

Now, we have our seat at the table. Now, we can talk about social responsibility on a campus-wide scale. And the best part is, we were asked to have this conversation. The “Yes” voter understands that the Corporation is finally engaging in a dialogue, and wants to embrace this opportunity.

And it’s an opportunity worth embracing. Yale’s endowment is valued at $20.8 billion dollars, which means that our university alone holds about one-20th of the country’s college endowment money; credit for that goes to David Swensen and the Yale Investments Office. The “Yale model” is renowned for its excellence, and if Yale makes a move, it will send a strong signal to the financial community that divestment is a worthwhile endeavor, giving the green light to other universities to divest as well. The “Yes” voter understands that Yale holds a powerful voice, which right now is hoarse from not being used.

Of all the political issues Yale can engage with, climate change in particular needs our voice. The environment is just too easy to ignore. Carbon is invisible, and the rising sea level is imperceptible. When the climate strikes hardest — Hurricane Sandy, for example — we rush to find a patchwork solution and then wait for the next crisis to hit. Our politicians simply aren’t connecting the dots between the climate and fossil fuels. Last year, when 40,000 people gathered in front of the White House to demand action on climate change, President Obama wasn’t home. He was in Florida playing golf with fossil fuel industry executives.

But recently, something changed. This June, in an address about climate change, our president urged, “Invest, divest.” Has there ever been a more direct shout-out to a student movement? When President Obama met with a small group of environmental justice activists, he told them, “My job is to govern. Your job is to push me.” The “Yes” voter adds her voice to the push.

On the other hand, a “No” vote says little. The referendum does not give students space to clarify why they oppose divestment, which means that the Corporation will be free to draw its own conclusions. Does an opposition voter reject the idea of climate change, the value of socially responsible investing, the referendum process or something else entirely? It’s unclear. But at least a “No” vote is participation. What scares me most is the student who doesn’t vote at all. With climate change, silence is the norm, both in the media and in politics. Abstaining from the referendum implicitly endorses that silence.

The national struggle for the climate is finally heating up, and so is Earth. We can’t afford to put this issue off any longer. My request to you, Yale student, is simple. Next time the YCC sends you an email and asks you to vote, do it.

Max Weinreich is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at max.weinreich@yale.edu.

  • theantiyale

    Yale could lead the world.

  • hnesser

    This is wonderful.

  • Devin JL

    On point.

    Make your voice heard!

    Hold the admin accountable to Yale’s policy of ethical investing and to keep Yale a thought-leader.

  • Sarah Brandt

    “When President Obama met with a small group of environmental justice activists, he told them, ‘My job is to govern. Your job is to push me.’ The ‘Yes’ voter adds her voice to the push.”

    As students attending one of the most influential universities in the world, we have the chance not only to add to that push, but to add to that push in a largely influential manner. So act on this opportunity. Vote yes.

  • Howareyoudoing

    Is this headline a DKE joke?

  • branford73

    This is likely one of those issues that is close to impossible for anyone on campus to openly advocate against this divestment movement. After all who wants to oppose
    saving the planet? I certainly haven’t seen anyone write in these pages against it.

    But it seems to me like self-proclaimed vegans who wear leather shoes and belts and carry leather purses. If you’re a user of electricity (computer, cell phone, t.v., ) or drive a car, even the electric ones, you’re likely a consumer of fossil fuel energy. Or it’s
    like boycotting Stolichnaya vodka because it’s made in Russia, whose government is
    anti-gay, despite the Stoli’s apparently gay-friendly company policies.

    Plus, the largest developers of non-fossil fuel technologies for commercial use are big fossil fuel companies.

    EDITED TO ADD: Now I see reports of anti-divestment discussion on campus so I withdraw my first paragraph.

    • tei1

      “Plus, the largest developers of non-fossil fuel technologies for commercial use are big fossil fuel companies.”

      If only… unfortunately, while sorting through company data to see if this was a possibility, there was not much evidence to back this claim up. The possibility is accounted for though, as there are, of course, some companies who are developing non-fossil fuel technologies, but those are not the companies contributing the most to the social harms of climate change. This separation is addressed in the FFY proposal, which asks for action with companies that have the worst ghg emissions intensities, which would be smaller for companies developing non-fossil fuel technologies. The separation can also be seen in the statement itself, “…contributing the most to climate change and associated social harms”.

  • thefriendlygod

    As a self-proclaimed vegan who wears leather shoes and belts and carries a leather wallet (mea maxima culpa) I wanna point out that branford73’s criticism does not constitute a reason not to vote YES on this proposal. Neither do my doubts about “Yale’s power as an institution to create political change”.

    Spread the word on the divestment referendum! Invite all your friends to: https://www.facebook.com/events/598389033556293/?fref=ts and visit http://www.fossilfreeyale.org/

  • Andesron Scooper

    Awesome column, Max. Your passion alone is inspiring.

  • inmyhumbleopinion

    While I understand and sympathize with some of the points made here, this article does not give me enough. You’re a great writer, Max, and this would make for a good speech. However, beyond appealing to the emotions of the readers, I wish you had provided more factual arguments rather than basically saying something along the lines of “let’s make our voice heard and change the course of history.”

    Some questions that I would have liked to get answers to include: how would such a move affect the Yale endowment and Yale’s spending, for instance financial aid offerings? Would saying “Yes” in the referendum mean complete divestiture from fossil fuels, or would it mean a decrease in the percentage of fossil fuels investment in the YIO portfolio? Most importantly, what realistic change are we expecting to produce by this divestiture? Unfortunately, it is a reality that fossil fuels are still a very important and widely used source of energy, and I doubt it will cease to be so unless cheap and sustainable alternatives are developed. I am afraid that, as long as fossil fuels remain omnipresent, Yale’s divestiture would produce little real change because other investors will jump in to take advantage of the market inefficiencies there. Perhaps, then, complete divestiture is not practically the best course of action, but instead a better option to push for would be increased focus and funding by Yale for research to make clean energy cheaper and more widely utilized?

    This is not to say that the answers to all these questions are such that students should vote “No”. In fact, I am still not sure whether I will vote “No.” I just wish you had considered these issues and convinced me in a more systematical manner, rather than reducing this complex problem by appealing to my Yale student savior complex.

    • uniteyale

      If you had read any other material being published by Fossil Free Yale and its constituents, you would have the answers to these questions. One op-ed is not meant to serve to inform on every single aspect of the campaign.

      Saying yes in the referendum would mean showing Yale’s Board and Committees on Investment Responsibility that you would support a decision by Yale to divest from not all, but the worst, most egregious fossil fuel companies, or as you say, a decrease in the percentage of fossil fuel investment in the portfolio. This is Fossil Free Yale’s ask: IN ACCORDANCE WITH ITS GUIDELINES FOR ETHICAL INVESTMENT, YALE SHOULD DIVEST ITS ENDOWMENT FROM THOSE FOSSIL FUEL COMPANIES CONTRIBUTING THE MOST TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND ASSOCIATED SOCIAL HARMS.

      Divestment at Yale is a part of a nation-wide movement on college campuses and in cities to divest from fossil fuels. Together, the 300+ schools and other communities are making the statement that we believe it is wrong to profit from wrecking the planet, which is what these fossil fuel companies are doing. The realistic change we expect from divestment is socially crippling these companies and stigmatizing their entire existence and model.

      Again, please be clear that we are not asking for complete divesture. Additionally, any divestment that occurs will come with reinvestment, hopefully in renewable energy markets and companies. We are positive that an Investment Office as strong as Yale’s, under the guidance of the genius of David Swensen, will know where and when to reinvest.

      • inmyhumbleopinion

        Fair enough, thanks for the clarification. If this article was chiefly meant to be inspirational and rhetorical, then it reached its goal. I suppose I was looking to be convinced by a comprehensive set of factual arguments in the wrong place.