Divest Coal urges U. to make first move

By
Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

Bill McKibben, environmentalist and founder of the 350.org campaign, cited three statistics to outline his concerns about climate change in a 2012 Rolling Stone article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

The temperature of the Earth cannot rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, he wrote, without inflicting disastrous effects on the environment. This means that the world can only release about 565 more gigatons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, according to McKibben.

His article did more than restate points about climate change. McKibben proposed a plan of action that included harnessing the power of college movements to help spur change.

“The campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa … rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments,” he wrote.

A month after the article’s publication, around five undergraduates began laying the groundwork for Brown Divest Coal, a student group committed to ethical investing and environmental justice that has grown to 100 active members on campus.

Brown Divest Coal is one of hundreds of campus movements across the nation that have answered McKibben’s call to action on climate change. Its push for divestment has yielded results. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, will likely vote on divesting at its October meeting if it is not brought up for a vote during this month’s meeting, said Emily Kirkland ’13, a leader of the group.

‘Burning’ the way

Previous efforts at environmental activism have lacked a crucial element — a defined enemy for supporters to rally around, McKibben wrote.

“A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies,” he wrote.

His proposed target: fossil fuel companies. These firms, along with energy-exporting countries, hold reserves amounting to approximately 2,975 gigatons of carbon emissions, McKibben wrote.

“Most people tiptoe around the issue … because there’s so much involved in climate change,” said Dawn King, assistant visiting professor of environmental sciences. “To actually point a finger — that’s a new approach.”

The primary logic behind popular support for mass divestment from fossil fuel companies is financial. As more investors sell their stock holdings in these firms, the shares will decrease in value. By targeting the firms’ bottom lines, environmentalists believe they can pressure them to reduce their carbon emissions.

“The link for college students is even more obvious in this case,” McKibben wrote. “If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree.”

“The article was certainly a turning point in the movement,” said Shea Riester, campus divestment organizer with 350.org.

“If these companies are left to do their bidding, then the world burns,” Riester added. “He just put it so clearly.”

Brown is not Green

Before arriving on campus for the fall semester, a group of Brown students discussed meeting to organize and evaluate the University’s investment practices. They contacted each other through old listservs for other campus environmental groups.

Brown Divest Coal launched in September with fewer than 10 members and held its first official meeting with President Christina Paxson in October.

The group has tried to work within what University administrators have called an “established structure” for submitting these types of proposals for change, Kirkland said.

“We’ve been putting really consistent pressure on the administration,” she said. “I think that’s made it hard for them to ignore us.”

The campaign received support and guidance from nonprofits like 350.org and community organizers like Riester, who help students access the information needed to engage in productive dialogue with members of the administration.

After gaining momentum throughout the fall semester, the movement saw its first major breakthrough in January, when the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies recommended the University “publically divest”  from the “Filthy 15” — a list of the largest coal companies in the United States complied by the Energy Action Coalition. A petition urging University divestment has thus far collected 2,700 undergraduate signatures, 300 alumni signatures and 100 faculty member signatures, said Rachel Bishop ’13, a group member.

“The University has spoken, so it’s time for the Corporation to as well,” Kirkland said.

But the University hasn’t always spoken with one voice. Though ACCRIP recommended divestment, Paxson called for further “careful consideration” in a Herald guest column last month. And in an interview this month, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 told The Herald that though the administration and students are both deeply committed to the environment, he thinks divestment in this case is a “bad” and “distracting” approach.

Schlissel questioned what would come next if the movement succeeds, saying that the University could theoretically be pressured to divest from oil companies, natural gas companies and advertising companies that represent cigarette companies, among others.

“I’m worried about exposing the University to a lengthy string of symbolic actions that may not have the intended consequence but progressively constrain our ability to manage the endowment so that the University remains healthy,” he said.

Still, Schlissel said collaborating with student groups to consider the issue is “critical” and that it will be reviewed “in a clear and thoughtful matter.”

From the grassroots up

At a Divest Coal rally May 3, students from schools across the Northeast joined approximately 100 Brown students to protest outside Paxson’s office on the Main Green. The crowd urged Paxson to exit University Hall and declare an affirmative vote for divestment.

“What we’ve been thinking about recently is creating regional nodes of power,” said Hannah Mills, a freshman at Columbia.

Regional connections have been vital to the growth of campus movements, Mills said, adding that the convergence of activists at Swarthmore College in February offered a great opportunity to meet other activists.

“The more we can cross-pollinate ideas across different regions, the stronger we will be as a movement,” Riester said.

Students may first feel intimidated “in the face of such a huge issue,” Bishop said, but by simplifying what defines success, the divestment movement has shifted the issue to a workable scale.

“While I don’t think I can necessarily change my congressman’s mind, I can certainly change the administration’s mind,” Bishop said.

The effectiveness of the divestment movement depends on building success on a number of levels.

“In itself, Brown divesting is not going to change climate change, but it’s going to help create a national consciousness,” Riester said, including significant “media attention” if the University chooses to divest.

As of last month, five U.S. universities — including Unity College, Hampshire College, Sterling College, Santa Fe Art Institute and the College of the Atlantic — have pledged to divest from coal. All of these schools have endowments of under $1 billion.

University decisions

In response to the upsurge of college activism and McKibben’s national “Do the Math” tour, the Aperio Group, an investment management firm in California, released a report called “Do the Investment Math: Building a Carbon-Free Portfolio.”

The firm conducted statistical analysis to determine how divestment from the “Filthy 15” firms would affect a university portfolio consisting of the Russell 3000, a broad stock index of United States companies.

The report found that divestment “increases absolute portfolio risk by only 0.0006 percent.”

The sizes of university endowments — the University has a significantly larger endowment than schools that have divested — matter less than the chosen investment strategies, said Liz Michaels, chief of staff at Aperio.

If a University endowment portfolio is actively investing, instead of simply constructing portfolios that track larger indices, it already holds a 5 percent risk, she said.

A representative from the University Investment Office could not be reached for comment on the University’s portfolio practices. Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, told The Herald she had no comment on the issue of divestment.

The Aperio report suggests that University endowments will not be significantly affected by divestment from fossil fuel companies. King added that recent energy trends may also lower the attractiveness of such investments, as discoveries of shale gas reserves have contributed to a national shift away from coal toward natural gas.

“There’s a camp of people that believe that these stocks are overvalued and that the portfolio will perform worse for having them,” Michaels said.

Universities may also face structural problems related to commingled funds, combined accounts in which coal company investments could be tied to the endowments of other universities. This would make individual divestment difficult in a technical sense.

“You can’t divest part of a commingled account. … It would be hard to get everyone to do this,” Michaels said.

But structural problems should not prevent schools from aligning their investment strategies with their ethics, Riester said, adding that the schools that have already pledged to divest “had commingled funds, they had bureaucratic problems, but they got over it.”

“An institution like Brown is afraid to be the first big university to do this. Brown doesn’t want to be Hampshire College. Harvard doesn’t want to be the College of Atlantic,” Riester said.

“It’s a shame … they are afraid to take the step,” he added.

Looking forward

Paxson publicly announced in April that the Corporation is unlikely to vote on divestment at its May meeting.

“I would be very surprised if it were to happen by the May meeting of the Corporation,” Schlissel said, since the ad hoc committee was only recently formed. “It’s not on the category of an emergency, and I think the Corporation’s going to want to be thoughtful about this.” Nonetheless, he said it was “on the table for sure.”

But members of Brown Divest Coal promise to continue campaigning through the summer and return to campus in the fall ready to take on the Corporation again.

“Consistency is what we’re bringing,” Kirkland said. “If they don’t vote in May, we will absolutely be back.”

Bishop said she wishes the Corporation would take the time to review the measure in May, as “the window to act on climate change is slowly closing.”

“We’ve been hearing from people … that climate change is this terrible looming thing for a long time,” Bishop said. “This is a chance to use our leverage and make a change.”

 

— With additional reporting by Eli Okun

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