Yale Daily News

In April 2021, the University announced a set of new principles that will guide Yale’s investment in the fossil fuel industry, and said that it will publicly name and withdraw funding from corporations that fail to meet the standards. The new policy comes after years of student activism on the issue, which have included sit-ins and mass protests. 

The new principles are the culmination of the work of the Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles, which University President Peter Salovey convened in October. Salovey formed the committee nine months after students advocated for divestment in a February 2020 Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meeting. Salovey charged the committee with devising a new set of principles to meet the severity of the climate crisis. By June, Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, which develops recommendations for the Yale Corporation concerning socially responsible investing, will name specific companies from which the University should divest.

“I don’t think there is a problem in the world today more serious than climate change,” Salovey said in an interview with the News. “It is clear that human action contributed to it and human action is going to address it.”

The committee’s report names five new principles that the Investments Office must follow to determine whether companies are eligible for investment. Companies must avoid exploration and production of fossil fuels that generate high levels of greenhouse gas emissions relative to energy supplied, as well as minimize greenhouse gas emissions in their operations. The principles also require that companies support government policies on climate change and provide accurate information about climate science. The final principle says that the companies must be transparent with Yale and its Investments Office regarding their compliance with Yale’s principles.

One immediate impact of the new guidelines, according to the report, is that the University is likely to divest from coal companies — they produce the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy of all fossil fuels. Coal production accounts for 60 percent of power plant carbon emissions in the United States yet produces only 20 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the report. 

The principles do not require full divestment from the fossil fuel industry. However, according to the committee’s chair, Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, this is a deliberate decision. 

“The basic point is that if you’re blaming everybody — which is what blanket divestment is — you’re blaming nobody,” Macey said. “We are naming names.”

By naming names, the committee hopes to publicly shame companies, which it expects will be more effective than a blanket divestment. Moreover, according to Kenneth Gillingham, associate professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of the Environment and a committee member, the group wants to incentivise companies to move towards cleaner energy sources and reward those who already are. 

Nevertheless, student leaders have called on Yale to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry. In May, the student body presidents of all eight Ivy League universities called on the institutions to cut all ties with the industry. 

Ben Grobman ’21, an organizer for Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition, a student divestment advocacy group, said that the new principles represent a “huge win” for climate activists, but that the group will continue to advocate for full divestment. 

Throughout the process, the committee engaged with students across the University, meeting with members of the Yale College Council, the Graduate Student Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate. Through an online form, the committee also gathered the opinions of over 250 people, who shared their views on the University’s investment policies, the report says.  

The change to the University’s stance on fossil fuel divestment is the culmination of years of student activism on the issue. Over the last six years, Yale students have been active in pushing the University to divest from fossil fuels. In 2018, students led a sit-in at the Yale Investments Office, protesting the holding of Puerto Rican debt and the investment in the fossil fuel industry. As of April 2021, the Investments Office estimates that 2.6 percent of Yale’s endowment — about $800 million — is invested in fossil fuel-producing companies. 

At the 2019 annual Harvard-Yale football game, hundreds of students and alumni from both universities stormed the field, demanding that the universities divest from fossil fuels. A statement from Divest Harvard called on both universities to “address the climate emergency at the scale and with the urgency it demands. This action is only the beginning.” In October 2020, students led further sit-ins, this time at Cross Campus, again pressuring the university to divest from fossil fuels.

Macey said that he welcomes further student activism regarding the University’s investment principles. 

“I think student pressure will be great,” Macey said. “I want to be prodded into faster and better action.”

Yale plans to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Philip Mousavizadeh covers Woodbridge Hall, the President's Office. He previously covered the Jackson Institute. He is a sophomore in Trumbull College studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics