Over the next two weeks, Yale will host a series of events for the eighth United Nations Global Colloquium of University Presidents on the subject, “Preservation of Cultural Heritage: Challenges and Strategies.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will chair the colloquium to discuss significant threats to cultural heritage and possible solutions for overcoming them. Climate change will be among the topics discussed; many communities and countries suffer from the environmental and economic harms of fossil fuel extraction. However, Ban Ki-moon’s ideas of tactics necessary to combat climate change do not appear to be shared by the other attendees of the colloquium: presidents of universities that have refused to divest their endowments from fossil fuels.
This colloquium will not be the first occasion on which the Secretary-General has discussed climate change. He has consistently called upon investor action — that is, removing investments from fossil fuel companies — as a strategy for overcoming this issue. He lauds it as an effective and necessary step in transitioning to a sustainable energy economy. Ascribing great power to the implications of actions made by investors, the Secretary-General states that investors’ decisions can “accelerate the rapid decarbonization of the economy.”
“In a world of scarce resources, you provide one of the rarest of all commodities — leadership by example,” stated Ban Ki-moon at the Investor Summit on Climate Risk in January 2016. His statements demonstrate an understanding that fossil fuel divestment has impacts broader than financial damage incurred by fossil fuel companies. Rather, divestment serves to set a new standard in which the investor community refuses to fund practices that hinder sustainable development and an environmentally just future. As the Secretary-General stated at the Investor Summit, “Every decision on investment and resource allocation must be part of the solution.”
Continuing to invest in fossil fuels cements reliance on unsustainable energy practices. Ban Ki-moon encourages investors to recognize alternatives rather than continuing this conventional reliance. He expresses confidence in the “force of human ingenuity” to create resilient economic growth based in clean energy. To “transform the global economy” is the best way to make sufficiently wide-reaching improvements that combat climate change. Society cannot afford to wait for this transition to evolve slowly. Studies have shown that the damage of past greenhouse gas emissions will soon be beyond society’s control to fix. Ban Ki-moon stresses that if communities wish to limit the rise in global temperature to below two degrees Celsius before it is too late, they must rapidly enact widespread change.
If the UNGC wishes to discuss cultural heritage, they must discuss unsustainable energy practices that directly threaten cultural heritage by debilitating poorer, less-developed communities. These communities are exploited in the process of fossil fuel extraction. Furthermore, when such areas rely on fossil fuels for energy, the basis of their prospective development is unsustainable. This undermines the stability and reliability of their progress.
It is necessary we allocate resources to support sustainable energy solutions for the millions of people living without it. According to Ban Ki-moon, “that is the route to ending poverty, increasing opportunity and laying the foundation for sustainable global economic growth.” Ban Ki-moon encourages investors both to remove investments from fossil fuel companies, and to transfer these investments to infrastructure based in sustainable energy for more reliable, lasting development.
The Secretary-General praises organizations that have shifted investments from fossil fuel companies into cleaner energy. He affirms forward-thinking civil movements, such as fossil fuel divestment campaigns, and encourages them to continue pushing climate change initiatives. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns have materialized in college campuses across the world, including here at Yale, pushing universities to divest alongside colleges that are already transitioning. The UN organization overseeing global climate change negotiations also expressed support for these campaigns.
“We have lent our own moral authority as the U.N. to those groups or organizations who are divesting. We are saying, ‘We support your aims and ambitions because they are fairly and squarely our ambition,’” Nick Nuttall of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change told The Guardian in March 2015.
Ban Ki-moon refers to this shift in investments as an inevitable solution that is already being implemented. “Investors and businesses that redirect resources to low-carbon, climate-resilient growth will be the economic powerhouses of the 21st century. Those that fail to do so will be on the losing side of history.”
Will divestment come up explicitly at this summit of university presidents? That remains unclear. But what does it mean that this prominent figure will be speaking to this group of presidents who have not been practicing “leadership by example”? What interests hold them back? It’s far past time for places like Yale to merely talk about cultural heritage — it’s time we act to protect it.
Janine Comrie is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com . Phoebe Chatfield is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .