What do Norway and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have in common? First, both know a thing or two about fossil fuels, having accumulated their vast fortunes — $850 billion and $860 million, respectively — from fossil fuel investments. And second, both are now divesting from fossil fuels: Norway’s pension fund from 32 coal companies, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund from everything. Meanwhile, some of the best known universities in the world, whose research contributes to our understanding of climate, are dithering. What do Norway and the Rockefellers know that MIT and Dartmouth College don’t?
Perhaps it’s the Scandinavian concern for the common good over individual aggrandizement. Perhaps it’s the prospect of Oslo becoming a summer resort, or perhaps its five-star actuaries have calculated the risk associated with fossil fuel investments and judged them an unnecessary gamble. We think our universities should follow the north star; we also think they may need a nudge or two before they take action.
Universities thrive on two quantities: money and prestige. Alumni control the keys to both treasures. Social networks formed in college are cherished human connections. People seek out alumni associations and reunions throughout their lives. It’s not all about emotion though: alumni donated almost 10 billion dollars to their alma maters in 2014, a 9.4% increase over the year before. It goes without saying that every institution of higher learning wants to cultivate its graduates. That’s why we think alumni who care about the impending climate catastrophe should put their wallets to good use. They should employ their annual donations as a carrot — and if the colleges choose not to divest, as a stick — to persuade their alma maters to divest from fossil fuels. The recently established Multi-School Fossil-Free Divestment Fund (divestfund.org) has made it easier for them to do so.
The fund, a collaborative initiative between alumni supporting seventeen university divestment campaigns, leverages the greatest power alumni hold: our annual giving capability. The fund is an open platform; it welcomes alumni from any university divestment campaign to join, and so far includes Boston College, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Georgetown University, James Madison University, MIT, Northeastern University, Reed College, Stanford University, Syracuse University, Tufts University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Mary Washington, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin — Madison, Wellesley College, and Williams College. In this era of networks and aggregation, the multi-school divestment fund is an example of using technology to link many campaigns together, applying pressure on college administrators at an unprecedented scale. It comes on the heels of last weekend’s Global Divestment Day, that united thousands of divestment campaigners in 450 events in 60 countries.
While sizable alumni contributions are important to the operations of our universities, it’s the number of donors that’s essential to their reputations. National rankings are partially determined by the percentage of alumni giving, regardless of the size of their gifts. Alumni of these seventeen institutions can now give back to their alma maters while simultaneously demanding the environmentally, morally, and financially sound investment of our contributions. If a substantial percentage of alumni divert their donations to Divest Fund over the next three years, the message will be heard in presidents’ offices across the country.
College initiatives to divest from fossil fuel have a distinguished lineage. Back in the ‘80s, when the US government was reluctant to challenge the apartheid regime in South Africa, college divestment campaigns led the way to a popular movement against the evils of racial injustice. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has articulated, climate change — like racism then and now — is a moral cause that universities can embrace. In a recent letter, over 300 Stanford faculty presented this paradox: “If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?”
The fossil fuel divestment movement is answering that question, with active campaigns at over 400 universities around the world. The Multi-School Fund joins alternative donation options available for University of California, Harvard, Swarthmore, and Columbia alumni. Hundreds of institutions, from colleges and churches to public pensions and philanthropic foundations, have already divested, paving the way for an adequate global response to climate change. We look forward to our universities taking this step toward the right side of history.
David Goodrich is former director of the UN Climate Observing System in Geneva. Rajesh Kasturirangan is a fellow at the Mind and Life Institute.