Yale climate activists are calling for even greater changes to the fossil fuel industry after a small group of undergraduates challenged oil giant ExxonMobil through a shareholder resolution in May, one which ultimately failed but added one more voice to the divestment discussion on campus.
While members of Fossil Free Yale, as well as faculty, were heartened by the efforts of the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund, they believe the resolution only scratched the surface of a problem requiring significant pressure on oil, gas and coal companies, starting with the divestment of Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment from these industries.
This spring, DHSRI filed a shareholder resolution asking ExxonMobil to release undisclosed lobbying expenditures. ExxonMobil, a company in which Yale invests, has financial ties to policy groups that have denied the existence of climate change. Yale does not disclose how much it invests in ExxonMobil.
The resolution gained the support of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility when SRI fund announced the filing in January, but some faculty believe climate change is too daunting a problem to be solved by something so small as a single shareholder resolution.
“What is needed from ExxonMobil is a fundamental shift in its business model,” said Yale School of Public Health professor Robert Dubrow. “I don’t think shareholder resolutions will influence ExxonMobil or other fossil fuel companies in any fundamental way, or even on the margins … Shareholder resolutions should be a low priority for climate change activists.”
FFY member Nathan Lobel ’17 agreed that shareholder resolutions like the one filed by SRI are usually ineffective at making large oil companies more transparent and getting them to support climate policy.
Still, the Dwight Hall SRI Fund plans to file an identical, or similar resolution with ExxonMobil next year. Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, ACIR chair and Yale Law professor, said he is confident the advisory committee will support any future resolutions filed.
The problem may be too big for one group to solve alone, but the SRI resolution — which got 25.8 percent shareholder support, equivalent to about $100 billion worth of stock — was “a resounding success for Dwight Hall,” he added.
“I think that it is a significant achievement that bodes well for future initiatives at Exxon and other fossil fuel producers,” Macey said.
Climate activists, like those involved in FFY, have previously criticized the ACIR and the Yale Corporation for moving too slowly for significant change to occur at Yale. But the ACIR — which advises the Yale Corporation on investment strategies and ethics — has become increasingly open to hearing fossil fuel divestment arguments from FFY and Dwight Hall SRI, according to people from both groups. Dubrow said he is optimistic the ACIR will help bring about significant change, however slowly the body makes decisions.
“I hope this academic year the Advisory Committee will make a formal recommendation to the Yale Corporation in favor of divestment,” Dubrow said. “Fossil Free Yale and the University’s investment strategy are converging on the desirability to divest from the fossil fuel industry, albeit for different reasons.”
Further evidence of changes in the Investments Office’s stance on climate change came in April when Chief Investment Officer David Swensen announced Yale had divested $10 million from two fossil fuel companies with poor climate records.
In the last few years, Swensen has also encouraged Yale’s external endowment managers to assess the greenhouse gas footprint of prospective investments. Yale has also been open to expanding investments in renewable energy, which could serve as a complement to divestment, Dubrow added.
In 2014, Swensen told Yale’s endowment managers to seek out companies with smaller greenhouse gas footprints.
In the last three years, Lobel said divestment has become part of the mainstream discussion at Yale. Groups like the Yale Students for Prison Divestment, which condemns the private prison industry, have called on Yale to divest from other industries beyond fossil fuels.
“We’ve changed the conversation about how the University should be investing its money,” Lobel said. “The idea that our money is political is no longer controversial … It’s an idea whose time has come.”
While FFY has argued before the ACIR that the harm of climate change rises above the ethical bar set by the Corporation — which consults the 1972 book “The Ethical Investor” for guidance — Dubrow said much work the Corporation could take a moral stand and divest from fossil fuels.
Were the Corporation to divest Yale’s endowment, Dubrow said the University could become a moral leader in higher education endowment management. If divestment is too drastic a measure, however, Dubrow recommended the Corporation simply divest from ExxonMobil alone.
ExxonMobil’s total assets were valued at $349.49 billion in 2015.