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.