Tomorrow, April 22, the Yale Board of Trustees will convene on campus to attend the fourth Yale Corporation meeting of this academic year. Also tomorrow, Yale will celebrate the 53rd annual Earth Day. The coincidence of these events is ironic, given the Corporation’s continued investment in fossil fuels and other extractive industries. Yale’s fossil fuel holdings are estimated to be between 800 million and 2.5 billion dollars. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain because of the Corporation’s well-documented lack of transparency when it comes to everything from its financial holdings to its meeting minutes. As Yale touts its commitment to “sustainability” this Earth Day, students must hold its highest governing body accountable for its decades-long inaction on climate change, which disproportionately impacts the same marginalized communities that Yale claims to support.
Ten years ago, 83 percent of participating students voted yes on fossil fuel divestment in a YCC referendum. Yale ignored their call. In 2020, a YCC survey showed that 71 percent of respondents supported immediate divestment. Still, Yale did not divest. The Board’s longstanding attachment to its fossil fuel holdings in the face of the Yale community’s overwhelming support for divestment demonstrates the magnitude of the Corporation’s disconnect from those it purports to serve. This disconnect inspired Yale students to vote overwhelmingly in favor of democratization of the Board of Trustees in January. Following the results of the recent referendum, the Yale Corporation has not announced any transparency measures. In fact, the Yale community can’t even know whether they’ve discussed the issue, owing to their sealed meeting minutes and sparse public appearances.
One thing we do know is that several Trustees have documented personal ties to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, the same people who decide whether Yale should retain its fossil fuel holdings have benefitted, or still benefit, from the fossil fuel industry’s continued prosperity. William Earl Kennard, named a trustee in 2014, served on the board of directors of Duke Energy, which has the largest carbon footprint of any power company in America, from 2014 until 2021. During his tenure there, the company paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. Charles Goodyear IV, who first joined the Yale Corporation in 2011, formerly served as the CEO of BHP Billiton, an oil, mining and gas company. Goodyear also served on the board of Directors of Anadarko Petroleum from 2012 through 2015 –– a period that coincides with Yale’s decision-making on divestment. Joshua L. Steiner was appointed to the Board in 2018 while sitting on the board of Castleton Commodities International, a company that invests heavily in the natural gas industry. These personal ties represent a clear conflict of interest, as alleged in the Endowment Justice Coalition’s legal complaint against the Corporation, which is currently under review by the Connecticut Attorney General’s office.
The Yale Corporation often defends these conflicts of interest, as well as its continued inaction on climate change, by citing its “fiduciary duty” to invest Yale’s endowment in a manner that will benefit future generations of Yalies. Even from a purely economic standpoint, this argument is paradoxical. Between 2010 and 2020, the world’s five oil “supermajors” — ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and Total SA — have spent far more on dividends and stock buybacks than they’ve earned from business operations. These figures reflect supermajors’ unsustainable reliance on borrowing and asset sales to inflate their financial performance. A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis outlines the ways in which price volatility, the rise of renewable energy and governmental climate regulations make investment in the fossil fuel sector unacceptably risky.
And even if fossil fuel investments were financially viable in the long term, the Yale Corporation would still be violating its fiduciary duty by exposing the university and its students to the physical risks associated with climate change. Millions of people across the globe –– particularly those from marginalized backgrounds –– are already suffering the effects of the climate crisis. Current and future generations of Yalies are no exception. Yale’s Trustees, in their self-described role as stewards for these generations, have both a moral and a legal obligation to divest from fossil fuels and related extractive industries.
The Yale Corporation has total control over university spending, both in regards to the operating budget and the endowment. If they care about their fiduciary duty to Yale’s community this Earth Day, divestment from fossil fuels is only the first step to responsible stewardship. Beyond divestment, the Trustees must also reinvest Yale’s accumulated wealth in much-needed social services for marginalized communities on campus and in the city of New Haven. Instead of profiting from climate destruction, Yale should sponsor comprehensive mental and physical health care for students, high-paying jobs for New Haven residents and eco-friendly infrastructure throughout New Haven — all measures that will support current and future generations of Yale and New Haven residents rather than harming them.
For far too long, The Yale Corporation has shielded itself from accountability for climate destruction and related injustices by citing fiduciary duty and silencing stakeholders. At the same time, it has postured as a champion of sustainability and justice. Don’t let Yale greenwash away its complicity in climate injustice this Earth Day. Write to President Salovey, or to the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, at this link, and join any of the cosigning organizations to support the fight for climate justice on campus.
Naina Agrawal-Hardin The Endowment Justice Coalition
The Yale Student Environmental Coalition
The Women’s Center at Yale
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán
Asian American Students Alliance
Native & Indigenous Students at Yale
Students Unite Now
Yalies 4 Palestine
The Environmentalists of Color Collective
New Haven Youth Climate Movement
Black Students Alliance at Yale