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.

  • Devin JL

    Hands down win for divestment.

    After student pressure, Yale reviewed it’s polices and found that its ethical investing policy required divestment from certain companies investing in apartheid South Africa, even though people arguable benefited from cheap South African goods (especially the Corporation board members with investments in South Africa). Again, after student pressure, Yale compared its ethical standards to fossil fuel companies operating in Sudan and found they were causing “grave social harm,” even though people benefit from cheap oil. Mr. Fisher appears to be unaware that precedent is on the side of divestment.

    If all sides agree that climate change threatens “grave social harm,” then students must again get off their asses and hold the admin accountable to align its financial leadership with Yale’s thought-leadership. The fact that fossil fuel companies have a strangle-hold on our market and politics does not mean that Yale should invest in keeping things that way.

    • SAK7

      So you agree the production of energy should shift to nuclear? Or, is yours a vote to send the economy and the health of it’s people back to a pre-industrial era state? What, exactly, is the end game you advocate?

      • CharlieWalls

        The US is relatively extravagant with energy. A comparison of CO2 emissions per dollar’s worth of GDP per person finds the US to be two-fold more wasteful than the UK, France, Germany or Italy for example. See:
        http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PP.GD

  • CharlieWalls

    Firstly, this seems to me one of the more important student discussions reported in the YDN of late. Secondly, the facts provided by ‘JL’ are quite relevant. Money divested from one area is reinvested elsewhere, and clearly shifts in capital investments will be necessary as climate change advances in the coming decades. Shifting fossil carbon to atmospheric CO2 is a major concern that must be faced.

  • Max Weinreich

    For me what clinched the debate was this:

    Audience Member: “This question is for Students for a Strong Endowment. Do you have any sources to counter the HSBC, Aperio Group, Citi Group, and others who say divestment won’t harm the endowment at all?”

    SSE guy: “We’ve only been around for a week, so you can’t expect us to have research. But, here’s a hypothetical example which might sway you.”

    I’m willing to listen to any well-researched counterargument to divestment, but SSE has based its entire argument on paranoia.

    • Guest

      Aperio’s data calculates losses and tracking errors based on passively invested portfolios. Yale employes actively managed strategies and thus leads the industry in Swensen’s ability (and his manager’s ability) to select profitable energy industry investments. divestment significantly limits the ability to select profitable investment strategies and the realized losses would be greater then estimated by aperio and etc. not to mention the rollout if you were extending this logic to parts of the portfolio that are contracted out to 3rd party investors. Aperio’s estimations would best be suited for smaller endowments which rely on indexed investment strategies or pension investments which just accrue off general market performance…

      I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise of divestment, but the data and research brought to the referendum shows a narrow picture of what the costs of divestment would be because they were researched with a goal in mind, and not researched for an accurate assessment of the real risks.

    • Guest

      All that said, the divestment argument is purely an ethical one. once you’ve brought the numbers in, you are only arguing that the losses “won’t be that bad” or “are worth it”.

      On pure ethics alone, divestment makes some sense

  • SAK7

    One cannot logically run from something without running to someplace else; save perhaps decapitated chickens. To send an anti-fossil fuel message without a pro some other type of energy source message is to become the headless chicken. Shall the endowment invest in steel production? Steel mills are huge users of fossil energy. How about nuclear power… is that on the table? Formulate a consistent and complete logical position… end to end.

  • tribe

    This article really misses the story. For everyone who wasn’t there, Students for a Strong Endowment revealed themselves to be totally ignorant about what divestment would entail, or what it would accomplish. There’s no question they lost the debate. I just hope everyone remembers that when they vote.

  • undergrad_14

    The fact that only 35 people went shows that nobody really cares.