The renaming of Calhoun College was not the only item discussed by the Yale Corporation at its February meeting: The Corporation also received an update from Yale’s responsible investments committee about ongoing research into the oil company Exxon Mobil Corp., whose efforts to sow doubt about climate change have led to calls for divestment from students and faculty.
Yale holds an undisclosed number of shares in Exxon Mobil, and the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility — which serves as a conduit between the Corporation and the Yale community — has been investigating the company since last spring. In an interview with the News, ACIR Chair Jonathan Macey LAW ’82 said he doubts that the Corporation, which deliberates in secret, made a decision on whether to divest from Exxon at last weekend’s meeting.
“We both left … with the impression that there’s still work to be done,” Macey said. “The work is ongoing; it would be very surprising if they made the decision in light of the fact that we’re engaged in ongoing research.”
Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 declined to comment on the discussions about Yale’s investments in Exxon Mobil.
The ACIR began investigating Exxon Mobil’s links to climate change denial last spring, around the time the student-run Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund filed a shareholder resolution challenging Exxon Mobil to disclose its lobbying expenditures. The resolution by the DHSRI, which failed to win the support of the majority of Exxon Mobil shareholders, was a tactical maneuver partially designed to put pressure on Yale to divest by showing that direct engagement with the company had not led to improvements.
“I believe that the ACIR did have concerns after that,” said Gabe Rissman ’17, who worked on the resolution for the DHSRI. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re thinking about Exxon [Mobil].”
Since last spring, the ACIR has worked with student organizations like Fossil Free Yale as it gathers information about Exxon Mobil’s links to policy groups that fund climate change denial. According to reports in major newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian, Exxon Mobil has long understood the dangers of climate change while publicly denying that global warming is a threat.
“We’re specifically interested in whether or not they’ve been funding climate change denial at a time when they said that they had stopped,” Macey said. “We verify things that we’ve seen in the press to determine whether or not they’re true.”
Macey added that the ACIR “may be in contact with [Exxon Mobil] at some point,” but he declined to say whether the committee has already reached out.
According to Yale professors who were interviewed, the ACIR’s research into Exxon Mobil may have a better chance of leading to divestment than FFY’s earlier efforts to advocate divestment from the entire fossil fuel industry. In 2014, the Corporation voted not to divest from fossil fuel companies, despite a referendum conducted the previous year by the Yale College Council that showed that a majority of students supported divestment.
“One of the many grounds that we believe justifies divestment is the fossil fuel industry’s active effort to spread misinformation about the reality of climate change,” said Nathan Lobel ’17, the policy coordinator for FFY. “We have not stopped advocating for full divestment but have organized around Exxon lately because we push for forward motion wherever possible.”
For the last four decades, the University’s investment decisions have been guided by “The Ethical Investor,” a 150-page manual published in 1972. In 2014, FFY argued that the social harm caused by fossil fuel companies’ greenhouse gas emissions justified divestment.
The Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility — which works directly with the ACIR and has decision-making authority over Yale’s investments — rejected that proposal. But this time around, Yale’s divestment advocates are focusing on an individual company’s efforts to distort policy, rather than the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
In an interview with the News, Yale School of Public Health professor Robert Dubrow said it would still be “a substantial victory if Yale were to divest from Exxon Mobil and not the other companies.”
“It’s not only the largest fossil fuel company, it’s also been in the lead in terms of promoting climate denial, and also lobbying against climate action at the congressional level,” he said.
Still, despite the ongoing work of the ACIR, Lobel expressed frustration with the “glacial pace” of the Corporation’s decision-making process, noting that 2016 was Earth’s hottest year on record and that carbon levels in the atmosphere are higher than ever.
“Because of the opaque nature of Corporation decision-making, we have no information about when the Corporation will address Exxon [Mobil] divestment or whether they will address it at all,” Lobel said. “If the Corporation is not willing to actually discuss ethical investment policy with community members, they at least should make public their agenda for the coming year.”
The eight members of the ACIR are Macey, undergraduate representative Susan Wang ’18, Caroline Muraida FES ’17, Executive Director of the Office of Dissemination and Online Education Lucas Swineford, Associate Vice President for Development Patricia Pedersen, history professor Harry Stout and alumni Darcy Frisch ’92 and Elon Boms SOM ’07.
Clarification, Feb. 20: This story has been updated to reflect the different priorities of FFY.