The movement for fossil fuel divestment is winning in and out of Yale. This isn’t baseless optimism on the part of unrealistic organizers: hard fought campaigns in the U.S. and internationally are succeeding. Last spring, Yale announced it was partially divesting from tar-sands and thermal coal. This fall, the Yale Corporation declared that it will make an effort to be more transparent. This should be cause for both celebration and doubling-down: campaigns are winning because of the hard work, creativity and persistence of their organizers.
Those fighting for fossil fuel divestment believe institutions have an ethical imperative to pull investments from an extractive industry that is uniquely culpable in the climate crisis. Divestment is a political tactic, not an economic one. The point isn’t to bankrupt companies but to create stigma and influence decision-makers. Students are sitting in and camping out, occupying campus commons and administrative offices, writing letters and holding rallies. Universities are finally responding to the pressure.
According to 350.org, 618 institutions have made some form of divestment commitment totaling $3.4 trillion. There has been an influx of commitments this fall. Most recently, King’s College London divested and reinvested in clean energy, and both the University of Otago and the University System of Maryland announced full divestment from fossil fuels. Two weeks ago, Harvard publicized its “move away” from investments in coal.
These wins create an atmosphere that makes divestment seem feasible, normal and moral. They also put a unique pressure on institutions like Yale that view themselves as morally exceptional. Yale cares about its legacy, and the world is watching. Our University’s elite self-image can be profoundly discomfiting, but for proponents of divestment on campus, it’s an important reality.
Yale wants to be a leader of movements that put it on the right side of history. Fossil fuel divestment is gaining momentum worldwide. It is in the interest of Yale’s legacy and its conscience to be an international leader in a movement that is winning and a movement that is morally right. We hope Yale divests because it wants to do the right thing, but the outcome is equally positive if it divests because it’s afraid to do the wrong thing.
In April 2015, Chief Investment Officer David Swensen announced that Yale was pulling $10 million of investments out of tar sands and thermal coal. Framed as partial divestment, both the University and Fossil Free Yale were bombarded with congratulations. Yale reveled in the good press. A New York Times headline declared “Yale Advances in Shaping Portfolio to Address Climate Change.” Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, here for the U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents, commended the University, encouraging other presidents to follow in Yale’s footsteps.
It’s true that the $10 million divestment represents only a tiny portion of a $26 billion endowment and was motivated by economic rather than moral considerations. Still, it’s a big deal. By deciding to disclose this information, the Corporation revealed that it is listening enough to know that we care. Yale wouldn’t release a statement if it pulled money from, say, the textile industry because it wasn’t doing well; clearly, the Corporation understands that investments in fossil fuels represent something qualitatively different.
The recent announcement of new measures to increase Corporation transparency also bodes well in the fight for divestment. On September 14, the News reported on the Corporation’s intention to deliberate measures that would increase transparency and accessibility. Whether or not these measures have a substantive impact, the University has clearly heard, and is feeling the influence of, student groups demanding more of a voice in what happens here. Following the tremendous organizing efforts of last year, we are faced with a Yale in transition—but only if we continue to apply pressure.
We can’t be sure exactly when the Yale Corporation will decide to divest from fossil fuels, but there is ample reason to believe we are on the cusp of victory. We know that divestment campaigns worldwide are strong and that they are winning. We know that Yale is feeling the pressure of powerful student organizing and that our resilient activists will not give up hard-won ground. Yale will divest from fossil fuels: sooner or later, that choice will seem obvious. Our university has the extraordinary opportunity to establish that. This, not the fossil fuel industry, is what Yale should be invested in.
RACHEL CALNEK-SUGIN is a Sophomore in Silliman College. She is a member of Fossil Free Yale. Contact her at rachel.calnek-sugin@yale.