A group of students, faculty, and staff gathered in PAC 002 on Thursday, April 30 to discuss climate change and divestment. The panel, titled “Inequality and the Climate Crisis: A Panel Discussion on Fossil Fuel Divestment,” was hosted by Wes, Divest! and the Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR) and aimed to explain the moral and economic implications of divesting from fossil fuel companies.
The four panelists were specifically chosen to represent different areas of expertise and points of view. The panelists included Onte Johnson, a community organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Bridgeport, Conn.; Beth Herz ’07, a board member for the Responsible Endowments Coalition; Professor of Economics Gilbert Skillman; and University Head of Operations and Investment Associate Brett Salafia.
Wes, Divest! member Claire Marshall ’17 spoke to the necessity of having panelists from diverse backgrounds.
“[The organizers] had a collective vision of having a very clear platform to deconstruct the myths around what we’re doing and make it really clear that we’ve thought about this a lot and have tried our best to see all sides of it and really believe it is an important moral, ethical, environmental cause,” Marshall said. “We wanted an unbiased platform…. The idea was to really tie in the moral aspect of this and that it’s not just this greater ideal of environmentalism that can be so abstract and hard for people connect with.”
CIR member Michelle Li ’16 added that different viewpoints were important to appeal to attendees from various parts of the University community.
“Student groups and the administration often find themselves with divergent aims,” Li wrote in an email to The Argus. “Panels like this bring together students and members from the faculty, administration, as well as those working outside Wesleyan in a neutral atmosphere to foster communication and learning. I think, no matter where you stand on the divestment issue, it’s important to understand the view from the other side, and understand the moral and financial implications behind your stance, in order for discussion to move forward.”
The event began with an opening statement from each panelist, and then opened up to a question and answer format.
In her statement, Herz asserted that the divestment movement must focus on local and tangible goals.
“Sometimes when we focus on a universal and distant goal…like climate change, like divestment, we lose track of how it’s actually affecting people in our community…and we cannot afford to do that,” Herz said. “So the movement that I want to be part of and that the Responsible Endowments Coalition wants to be part of is a multiracial and multi-class movement. We’re really thinking about how to build that focus that is shared, that acknowledges differences in both causes and impacts. What our movement looks like shapes what we can achieve.”
Not all of the panelists were as assertive about the ethos behind the divestment platform. Skillman raised several questions about the motivation behind divestment and the potential consequences.
“Is the reason for divestment at bottom because it satisfies an absolute ethical principle?” Skillman asked. “Like, without regard to the consequences, we should do it because it’s right and it would be wrong if we didn’t do it? Is that it? Or is it a question of means versus ends? Given the alternatives available to us, is the best thing for us to do [to] divest?”
Skillman expressed concern that if the reason for divestment was to uphold an ethical principle, the University must divest from any industry that has similar moral issues, which could cut it off from many major industries and severely affect the endowment.
Skillman raised the topic as a concern; Marshall found this to be a compelling pro-divestment argument.
“There is this national force behind specifically fossil fuel divestment, and we have to start somewhere,” Marshall said. “From there, in tandem with responsible investing and supporting more environmentally-minded startups and companies doing things for social change, it can be the beginning to a larger re-envisioning of how we can profit and how that is morally supported. While he was using that as a counterargument, I felt like it was exactly the point.”
Marshall further acknowledged that any divestment would be an ongoing process, and she stated that the beginning of this process is the goal of Wes, Divest!
“From a practical standpoint and an endowment standpoint, [divesting on an ethical basis] sounds scary, and it is scary,” Marshall said. “That is unstable and a huge idea that is very much long-term. But that’s an important aspect of this campaign. Really, no campus campaign is asking for immediate [pulling] of all holdings out, because that would have really difficult ramifications. But at the same time, the administration is not saying ‘We’re going to start trying’ yet. That’s what we want. We want to know that they can develop a concrete plan that will be enacted that’s thinking about the long-term in terms of our endowment but also in terms of the entire planet that is really affected.”
Skillman’s second point led to further discussion about the effectiveness of divestment versus the potential for effecting change as shareholders.
“Maybe staying in and using your voice is better than getting out and voting with your feet,” Skillman said. “…I don’t know the answer to that, but I think you have to think about it before you think divestment is the obvious strategy.”
Herz spoke to this point, reiterating her support of divestment as the most effective approach in the fossil fuel industry.
“As much as you want to change internal corporate policy, it’s a step,” Herz said. “It signals that shareholders are acknowledging this is a problem for them. It’s an example of how this matters internally to a company and to their bottom line, but it’s not the endgame for an authentic climate change movement…. I think it’s interesting to look at a combination. How can we do both? How can we use our feet and our voices?”
The panel aimed to raise difficult economic and ethical questions and to push attendees to think about the most responsible and effective course of action. Tess Altman ’17 said that the event made her consider divestment and the alternatives more complexly.
“I think divestment is a very good solution, [but] I don’t know if it’s the only solution ever,” Altman said. “…I don’t know if it’s the only thing the school can do in that regard. I think it’s a good option and I think it should continue to be considered a good option, but not the only option, and also a movement that, while it is fought for, also questioned and strengthened by that questioning.”
Wes, Divest! and the CIR will be introducing a referendum to the administration and Board of Trustees in the fall of 2014.
“We’re going to present a formal document outlining every aspect of divestment…that dives deep into all of the economics,” Marshall said. “Where we still stand is that we have the passion and we know that this matters, but we are not financial advisors, and we’re not equipped to tell you where you should be putting your money….With the Committee for Investor Responsibility, we’re going to try to present a more in-depth proposal.”
Although Marshall acknowledged that there is still much work to be done with the administration and the University Investment Office, she stated that the number of attendees at the panel was encouraging.
“It was so heartening to see that room totally full, people staying for the majority [of the panel] and really engaging the full conversation,” Marshall said. “….We might need to turn up the heat, we might need to get a little bit more assertive and a little bit more resistant to actually make change, but right now, people with all views of the issue are coming together and actually talking about it.”