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Divestment now!

A recent graduate says universities are uniquely positioned to send a strong message to polluters.

Shonagh Rae

A grass-roots movement that once relied only on small petitions and local meetings now has the support of the White House. In a June speech at Georgetown University outlining his environmental goals, President Obama urged college students to stand up and make their voices heard. “I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a global leader in the fight against climate change,” he told students. “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

The Fossil Free movement, happening on more than 300 college campuses — including MIT, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and my alma mater, Boston College — is already taking the lead. Student-run chapters around the country are devoted to getting their school’s endowment funds to immediately freeze new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and divest of existing holdings in any such businesses over the next five years.


Divestment by such powerful institutions on the cutting edge of science will show the world that we must act now. “Universities carry weight,” says Charles Derber, a Boston College sociology professor. “The two patron saints of universities are values and science, and both are telling us climate change is the biggest problem we face.”

Several small schools have already committed to divestment, including Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. We require many more.

“We need to take away the credibility of fossil-fuel companies,” says Joseph Lanzillo, communications officer for the Divest Harvard campaign. “Divestment is a way to say to them that we can’t support them anymore because of what they are doing to the planet.”

Many university administrations, however, have rejected divestment as a viable option. At BC, spokesman Jack Dunn says the endowment’s purpose is to generate returns that help pay for running the campus. “Placing restrictions on investments is rare and requires a clear and compelling case that a company is engaged in practices opposed to the moral and ethical principles guiding Boston College,” he explains in an e-mail. “It is difficult to make this case in this instance.”


But it’s precisely BC’s Jesuit identity that should compel it to divest. More than a decade ago, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized climate change as a moral issue and called on people of faith to address a problem that is “about the future of God’s creation.” Then, in 2011, the Vatican offered a similar appeal, calling on people to recognize climate change as something that is “serious and potentially irreversible.” As a recent graduate — and someone who signed the Fossil Free petition — I feel that the administration must divest to properly respond to this obligation.

Tufts Divest for Our Future, that university’s chapter, collected more than 1,100 signatures from students in support of divestment. In response to the petition, the trustees disclosed that only about 5 percent of the university’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels, but said that level of divestment would be a “challenging and difficult” process. (Still, Tufts president Anthony Monaco convened a working group to study the issue further.)

When it comes to financial risk, divestment may not be as dangerous as some university leaders assume. Such a move might even benefit an endowment’s bottom line.

According to a study commissioned by the Associated Press, an endowment of $1 billion that included investments in fossil-fuel companies would have grown to $2.14 billion over the past decade. If the endowment had excluded fossil-fuel companies, it would have increased to $2.26 billion. Assuming a tuition of $35,000, the report added, the difference would have been enough to fund some 850 four-year scholarships.


After Divest Harvard successfully petitioned for a student referendum last fall, 72 percent of undergraduates voted in favor of divesting their school’s $30 billion endowment. But the administration responded by saying it has a strong presumption against such a move. Nannerl Keohane, a member of the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, even called on students to thank the British oil and gas company BP for its investments in clean energy.

What has BP done that deserves our thanks? Getting the Deepwater Horizon oil spill under control, three years ago tomorrow, after it gushed crude into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months? Giving up on solar-panel production? Announcing in April that it will sell all 16 of its US wind farms? None of this deserves our thanks. These are all steps backward.

There’s still time to act. “If we’re to hold planetary warming to the two degrees that the world’s governments have said is the absolute red line, we can only burn 565 more gigatons of carbon,” environmentalist Bill McKibben, a coordinator of Fossil Free, wrote in Rolling Stone this winter, “but the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned . . . have five times the coal and oil and gas needed to roast the earth, and they fully intend to burn it.” Universities dumping their investments will send the message that we won’t let this happen.


A generation ago, students around the world — young Barack Obama among them — campaigned for divestment from South African companies that supported apartheid. Those students helped change the world. Universities must again take the lead and divest now, for our future.


$400 billion

Estimated amount held in all US college and university endowments

“Getting all of that money out of coal, oil and gas will make a pretty big splash.”

A Fossil Free manual

Patrick Gallagher is a freelance writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.