This past October, Hurricane Sandy ripped the effects of climate change off the pages of scientific papers and hurled them at my front door. High winds, flooding, and an unprecedented storm surge wreaked havoc on my hometown outside of New York City. My family was left without power for over a week, my high school shut down, and friends and neighbors were temporarily displaced as they watched flood-waters rise into their homes. Considering that my area was hit lightly compared to other towns and cities in the region, Sandy serves as a potent reminder that time is running out to combat the incredibly dangerous and increasingly real consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. It is clearer than it ever has been that now is the time for Wesleyan to divest from companies that contribute to such wasteful practices.
As of now, any global temperature increase of over two degrees Celsius would be considered a catastrophe by the scientific community. Although in 2009, nations such as China and the United States agreed not to exceed this benchmark, fossil fuel companies already possess in their reserves five times the amount of carbon that, if released into the environment, would cause the global temperature to rise above two degrees. Essentially, in order to remain profitable, the fossil fuel industry would have to propel us far beyond the point of catastrophe. This effect does not even take into account reserves that will be discovered in the future, which are sure to be plentiful considering the billions poured into exploration.
According to its Charter and By-Laws, the University’s Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR) examines issues of ethical, moral, and social responsibility in the University’s investment policies. The CIR can only see about five percent of endowment investments. The supposed reasoning behind the lack of transparency is that the private fund managers controlling the endowment want to keep their investing formulas a secret, even though the Board of Trustees has access to this information.
Nevertheless, despite this limited information, it is already clear that the University’s hands are dirty. Some of the unfavorable companies to which our tuition money goes include Occidental Petroleum, one of the largest oil and gas producers in the world, and Teck Resources, one of the main developers of the Canadian tar sands, a venture some view as the dirtiest resource extraction project ever conceived. These are the kinds of organizations that are using their bloated bank accounts to spread misinformation about climate change, corrupt our democracy, and prevent the solutions to climate change from coming to fruition. It is highly immoral to continue to fund these operations, especially considering how global warming is likely to affect the student body in the future. Investing in fossil fuels is investing against students.
The University’s website contains a sustainability page that displays some of the truly great strides our campus has made, such as fully endowing the College of the Environment and establishing the Green Fund. Furthermore, in his 2007 inaugural address, President Roth emphasized that we must show that our University is a leader in the public sphere by acting as a locally, nationally, and globally responsible institution. Investment in fossil fuels undermines the principles put forth by President Roth and functions as a counteractive force that dwarfs the vast amount of resources allocated toward campus sustainability.
However, at a recent WSA meeting, President Roth expressed his belief that the endowment is not a place for politics; its sole purpose is to make the University money. I would argue that since the endowment is the University’s largest resource, and that, sadly, the most effective way to influence our society is with a wallet, endowment investment has the most potential to create tangible change and should therefore be the first and foremost place for politics. In fact, the campaign to divest from South Africa, in which Wesleyan participated, was essential to overcoming apartheid in the 1980s. When alumna Lauren Steiner ’79 asked Roth about this particular point, he told her that he didn’t believe the divestment had any particular influence. In spite of this, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for a massive fossil fuel divestment campaign; his nation is one of the countries most affected by global warming, even though its people have done next to nothing to cause it.
If we do not divest our endowment from fossil fuels, then Wesleyan’s commitment to sustainability, one of the main reasons I came here, is nothing more than a façade. The University’s endowment directors are among the privileged few who can create a meaningful impact on an industry that threatens the stability of life on this planet. Students must show the administration that the community it represents is fully behind this cause. Supposedly, we are a campus renowned for student activism. Let’s prove it.