Environmentalist Bill McKibben will give the Chubb Fellowship Lecture, one of Yale’s most prestigious honors, this Tuesday. The fellowship recognizes his influential writing and activism within the global climate justice movement. In 2008, McKibben founded www.350.org, the first planet-wide grassroots climate organization, which “spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.” A recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel,” McKibben is an advocate for an immediate and equitable response to climate change. His presence on campus is part of Yale’s recent efforts to highlight the University’s self-declared leadership on climate change and sustainability.
From September’s Yale Climate Conference with former Secretary of State John Kerry to the recently implemented carbon charge program, Yale’s public support of climate action seems consistent with its mission statement, which states that the University aims to “improve the world today and for future generations.” However, these largely symbolic gestures do not justify Yale’s continued role in the destruction wrought by fossil fuel extraction. Yale provides a stage for people like McKibben, Kerry and Leonardo DiCaprio while simultaneously investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year in fossil fuels behind closed doors, actively profiting from the climate crisis.
Despite the University’s stated commitment to improving the world, Yale has failed to take any action commensurate with the magnitude of the problem of impending climate change. While the University announced in 2016 that it would divest holdings worth less than $10 million, research reveals that Yale increased its investments in fossil fuel companies by hundreds of millions of dollars in the past two years alone.
While much of Yale’s endowment information is inaccessible and opaque, we know that Yale owns stock in Exxon Mobil, a company that has actively funded climate denial for decades, and the Maules Creek Mine, an open-pit coal project that threatens local communities, endangered species and indigenous peoples’ sacred sites. These investments demonstrate that Yale expects a continued profit from coal, oil and gas companies, a vision of the future that is simply not compatible with any serious attempts to mitigate climate change. If Yale was genuinely committed to an equitable renewable energy transition, it would not be investing in the very industries responsible for impeding this transition. An institution that values the lives of future generations would not seek to profit from the activities that are destroying them.
Yet Yale is doing just that. Within a few months of the University’s 2016 divestment announcement, Yale bought nearly a quarter of a billion dollars of stock in Antero Resources, one of the most notorious publicly traded fracking companies. Between 2009 and 2013, Antero was found responsible for 47 violations of state and local laws in West Virginia and Colorado and 22 oil spills in Colorado, the highest incidence of spills and violations for any operator in these areas. In 2013, an explosion at an Antero fracking site killed two workers and injured three, while another site was forced to shut down after it contaminated local water supplies.
By continuing to invest in the oil and gas industry, Yale not only legitimizes continued extraction of fossil fuels but also profits from these companies’ blatant disregard for environmental and human health.
Bill McKibben’s writings have popularized the idea that “more than 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground in order to avert catastrophic climate change.” In the years following his landmark 2012 article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” hundreds of universities, churches and foundations have taken steps to divest their combined assets of over $5.5 trillion from oil, coal and natural gas. Just last week, 40 Catholic institutions announced the largest ever faith-based divestment.
The world is acting on climate change, taking concrete actions towards a just renewable energy transition and withdrawing support from industries intent on extracting as much oil as possible. Until Yale divests its holdings from fossil fuel companies, it cannot claim to be part of the solution.
Nora Heaphy is a first year in Morse College. LeeHi Yona is a graduate student at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Both are members of Fossil Free Yale. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .