Debate over fossil fuel divestment moved from the page to the podium on Wednesday.
The town hall-style debate, sponsored by the Yale College Council and attended by roughly 35 students, focused on whether students should vote “yes” on the YCC’s referendum next week. The referendum will ask students to decide whether the University should phase out endowment investments in fossil fuel companies. During the meeting, six students spoke — two from the pro-divestment group Fossil Free Yale, three from the newly founded anti-divestment group Students for a Strong Endowment and one who was unaffiliated with either group.
While representatives from Fossil Free Yale emphasized the moral imperative of addressing climate change and said their proposal would work within the administration’s own guidelines about ethical investing, Students for a Strong Endowment argued that removing the University’s assets from fossil fuel companies would constitute a political gesture with negative consequences.
“Nobody has denied that climate change is an important challenge,” said Alex Fisher ’14, the founder of Students for a Strong Endowment. “But nothing has changed our view that the endowment is the wrong place to have this battle. I think the idea of divesting from an industry that is keeping these lights on now is comical. It would be absolutely fundamentally wrong.”
Fisher added that divestment from fossil fuels would set a worrying precedent and criticized Fossil Free Yale for supporting the “radical” actions of pro-divestment groups at Harvard and Brown universities. But Gabe Rissman ’16, a representative from Fossil Free Yale and a lead author of a recent 80-page report published by the group, said Yale is acting independently from other divestment campaigns.
“Yale is doing something completely different from any other institution,” he said during the debate. “Yale’s divestment is not a political statement. [We are] simply following [Yale’s] own guidelines.”
Still, an endowment created by many past generations should not be used as a political tool, said Tyler Carlisle ’15, a member of the Students for a Strong Endowment. He added that divestment is never a simple process and could have negative financial consequences for the University. But Fossil Free Yale member Gabe Levine ’14 said studies have shown little difference between the performance of investment portfolios with investments in fossil fuel companies and those without. The two groups also differed on the importance of the referendum process sponsored by the YCC.
“What would the referendum do?” Carlisle asked. “Nothing really.”
Students from Fossil Free Yale countered, saying that if the referendum passes, it will demonstrate widespread student support for the cause of divestment. The referendum is not meant to pressure the administration, Levine said.
Rissman said the referendum could draw national attention, though he added that publicity for the issue is not the primary goal for the ballot. During the question and answer portion of the debate, the vast majority of inquiries from audience members were directed against Students for a Strong Endowment.
“This is a time for us to make a difference,” audience member Alina Aksiyote ’16 said. “If we all agree that this is a problem, why can’t we make a statement?”
Johnathan Landau SOM ’15, who at one point stood up and drew on the chalkboard to illustrate a point in Fossil Free Yale’s favor, said the debate was enjoyable and added that he appreciated that both sides had reached a consensus that climate change is a pressing issue.
The referendum will be held from Nov. 17 to Nov. 20.