Editor’s note: A version of these remarks were delivered to the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, February 20, 2020.

I am proud to be a faculty member of Yale University, one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the world. By divesting from the fossil fuel industry, Yale would exert moral leadership on climate change, which is not just one among a laundry list of issues, but rather is the most crucial challenge faced by humanity. Earlier this month, Georgetown announced its decision to divest, and the Harvard faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. I would like to see Yale be a leader, not a laggard. 

To mitigate climate change, we all recognize the need for a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. This transition will also prevent several million deaths each year due to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion. But I want to stress the urgency. The Paris Climate Agreement has an aspirational goal of limiting the increase in global mean temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, with a firm goal of well below 2 degrees Celsius. The implications of even 1.5 degrees of global warming are profound. In the past year, with only the 1 degree of warming Earth has experienced so far, we endured catastrophic tropical cyclones in southeast Africa; unprecedented wildfires in the Arctic, California and Australia; and record heat waves in Europe. 

According to the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and to reach net zero in 2050, CO2 emissions need to decline by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. This will “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) and industrial systems.” This transition is possible, but business as usual is not an option.

What is the role of the fossil fuel industry? Of course, until the transition is fully accomplished, the world will continue to need fossil fuels, albeit in ever decreasing amounts. Unfortunately, however, the fossil fuel industry is not simply a neutral party intent on producing the needed fossil fuels during the transition. Rather, the industry works tirelessly to block this transition and to push the world toward ever-increasing fossil fuel exploration, production and consumption. 

Current fossil fuel reserves represent at least 3 times the amount we could afford to burn to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Yet the industry is absolutely determined to continue with business as usual. First, the industry relentlessly pushes to explore for and develop new reserves that can only be extracted using increasingly extreme methods, including hydraulic fracturing, drilling in the oceans and the Arctic, mountaintop removal and extraction of dirty tar sands oil. Second, the industry is urgently building out natural gas infrastructure through an ever more elaborate network of pipelines, compressor stations and liquified natural gas export facilities. Furthermore, the industry has obscured public discourse by generously funding climate change denial, and through lobbying, campaign contributions and dark money, has established a stranglehold on Congress and the Executive branch. Through these actions, the fossil fuel industry is committing grave social injury.

Shareholder engagement and engagement with Yale’s external investment managers cannot turn the fossil fuel industry around. At best, the industry might reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the margins, through measures such as reducing methane leakage and making operations more efficient. But reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the context of the industry’s current business model does not represent the bold action that the world needs. 

To his credit, David Swensen has encouraged Yale’s external managers to avoid companies that refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change. His arguments, however, focus on financial risks and not on the moral imperative. We need to go further. Divestment represents a key strategy for putting the fossil fuel industry on notice — a moral statement in the context of a burgeoning movement led by young people whose futures are placed most at risk by climate change. Divestment seeks to remove the social license of the fossil fuel industry, to call out its moral bankruptcy, and ideally to force it to redirect its vast wealth toward development of renewable energy. Some issues are so urgent that even usually reluctant academics and their institutions need to take a stand. It’s time for Yale to exert its moral leadership and considerable influence by divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

ROBERT DUBROW, MD, PhD, is Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and the Faculty Director of the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health. Contact him at robert.dubrow@yale.edu .