Two days after President Donald Trump’s administration defended the use of fossil fuels at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, students at Yale renewed a petition demanding that the University divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Student group Fossil Free Yale, or FFY, and graduate student labor union Local 33 joined forces on Wednesday to gather signatures for a petition demanding that the University disclose and divest from its fossil fuel investments. According to members of Local 33, Yale has at least $678 million — about 2.5 percent of its total endowment — invested in oil, gas, coal and other resources with a high carbon concentration.
Bill McKibben, one of the nation’s leading environmentalists, told the News that for the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry would be “critical,” given the signaling power of institutions like Yale. He added that such institutions’ support, or lack thereof, has played a key role in the fossil fuel debate.
“Nothing can be done in D.C. for the moment — that means all of us have to do much more close to home,” McKibben wrote in an email. “For those of you who call Yale home, even temporarily, this is the biggest blow you can strike against the biggest crisis of our time.”
On June 1, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. The U.S. became the only country to have rejected the agreement, when Syria joined the pact on Nov. 7. Organizers of the petition, which has not yet been presented to the University, said Yale’s leadership can help fill the void left due to the federal government’s diminishing role in global climate change reform.
“It’s most important in this moment than it ever has been before because the federal government is withdrawing its pledge to act on climate change,” Fossil Free Yale member Mary Claire Whelan ’19 said. “It’s up to other kinds of leaders, to local policy makers, to institutional leaders, to make these commitments to stop climate change.”
Whelan said Yale’s reputation as a leader in endowment investment strategy adds to the weight of its actions. Other universities that follow the “Swensen model” — an investment strategy that emphasizes diversifying asset classes — in their endowment investments might be influenced by Yale’s choices in this area, she added.
The Wednesday petition states that Yale’s investments lend support to Trump’s climate agenda. It cites in particular the University’s investment in Exxon Mobil Corp, which the petition claims has given millions of dollars to lawmakers and lobbying groups that deny climate change. Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility decided against recommending divestment from Exxon Mobil in June, following a two-year campaign by Fossil Free Yale that specifically targeted the company.
Still, Whelan said there is hope that the University will respond to pressure from student groups. In 2016, five years after Fossil Free Yale’s establishment, Chief Investment Officer David Swensen announced in an email to the Yale community that the University divested around $10 million from fossil fuel producers after months of talks with its external money managers.
Although no major divestment has taken place since then, Whelan said the decision to release information about the 2016 divestment demonstrates the University’s willingness to respond to heightened pressure from the campus community.
Local 33, formed in 2016 to advance working conditions and benefits for graduate employees, finds itself in uncharted territory with the divestment petition.
Robin Canavan GRD ’19, co-chair of Local 33, told the News that the union teamed up with Fossil Free Yale after a vote by its elected body, called the coordinating committee. She explained that the issue of climate change has broad appeal with union members.
“Yale says it wants to do the right thing and stop climate change. It’s up to us, as members of the community, graduate and undergraduate students, to really hold them accountable, not just ‘talk the talk,’ but ‘walk the walk,’” Canavan said.
Yale is not the only university facing criticism for its investments in fossil fuels.
In April, Colin Butterfield, head of natural resources at the Harvard Management Company, said in a conference that Harvard University is “pausing” some of its investment in fossil fuels. And in March, the University of California divested $150 million from fossil fuels, marking the second such action since its $200 million divestment in September 2015.
Jingyi Cui | firstname.lastname@example.org