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The Podium

Colleges can help battle global warming

After a summer of record heat, unforgiving drought, and unprecedented Arctic melt — and after a campaign season where the candidates barely acknowledged the climate crisis — many were left wondering what, if anything, they could still do to slow global warming.

One answer is: Go to school on it.

Beginning last week, went on a roadshow — 20 cities in 20 nights — designed in part to spark a movement for campus divestment from fossil fuel stocks. Called the “Do the Math” tour it lays out the straightforward case that coal, oil and gas companies already have in their reserves five times the carbon that even the most conservative governments have decided is safe to burn. Exxon alone has 7 percent of the carbon necessary to warm the planet past the two-degree mark, and they spend $100 million a day searching for more. These are rogue companies, outlaws not against the laws of the state (with their massive lobbying budgets they write those rules), but against the laws of physics.

This argument is easiest to make at colleges and universities. It was in their labs that we first glimpsed the truth of climate change, and by now almost every department from biology to theology to accounting devotes serious effort to studying the crisis. It makes no moral sense to underwrite this work by investing in the very companies causing the trouble, and it makes no practical sense to pay for the education of today’s students with college endowment investments in companies who are guaranteeing there will be no livable planet where those degrees will count.


It may be the first time since the 1980s divestment campaigns against Apartheid in South Africa that there’s been a campaign on this scale — and indeed some of the leadership is coming from the same quarters. Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid, recently noted that divestment was crucial to that success, and that climate change is in our day the moral issue of the same order.


Unity College in Maine recently became the first college in America to announce that it was divesting from fossil fuels — a remarkable example of leadership from a college that specializes in sustainability. They did the right thing for the right reasons. But other universities will hesitate, afraid of damaging their investment returns. Fossil fuel companies, after all, are common endowment investments. So our demand is gentle — cease new investments, but then take five years to wind down your existing positions.

Better yet, we know one of the places where endowments can find strong returns, and not just in the ‘”ocially responsible” investment funds that have outperformed market indexes over time. Trustees can also look at their own campus buildings, for money is buried there just waiting to be found. The investment instrument to access this untapped treasure is a green revolving fund. Schools in 31 states throughout the country, ranging from Lane Community College to Caltech and to Harvard, are showing the way.

The Sustainable Endowments Institute just released Greening the Bottom Line 2012, its latest report on the track record of green revolving funds, and the numbers are compelling. If instead of propping up Shell or BP, a college invests in, say, more efficient lighting or heating, the median return on investment is 28 percent. The median payback is 3.5 years, meaning that the money will be fully repaid before this year’s freshman class graduates. The cost savings boost the bottom line and replenish the green revolving fund for investment in the next round of efficiency upgrades.


College trustees often think of a new lighting system as an “expense,” not an investment, but it’s not. If you invest a million and can expect to clear $2.8 million over the next decade, that’s the definition of fiduciary soundness — especially since it carries neither the financial risk of fossil fuel investments that may be subject to future carbon regulations nor the dismal moral certainty that your endowments assets are undermining the planet. And these opportunities are myriad, almost bottomless — the more work institutions do, the more opportunities they find.

One example of hundreds: George Washington University’s Green Campus Fund invested $141,000 to upgrade the lighting in their academic center in 2010. Since completion, the project is generating $100,000 per year in savings and has already more than paid for itself. With a projected lifespan of at least 8 years, the original $141,000 investment will generate about $800,000 in total savings (or substantially more if energy prices rise).

Best of all, this kind of investment supports the educational mission of a campus instead of undermining it. It demonstrates that the administration can heed the warnings of its scientists, and it shows students, every day, what a clean energy future might look like. Our political system is stuck for the moment; that’s when we turn to colleges and universities to take the lead and connect the dots between their labs and classrooms and the overheating real world.


Bill McKibben is the founder of and a fellow at Middlebury College. Mark Orlowski is founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.