We, all of us, have been handed a decisive moment in history, a moment of consequence, a moment that we can not choose to ignore or reject or miscomprehend for the sake of convenience and the fear of change.
Today, our society’s persistent addiction to coal, oil, and natural gas presents an active threat to communities at the frontlines of the the climate crisis. From the foothills of Appalachia to the neighborhoods of Chicago, the extraction, refining, and combustion of fossil fuels has ravaged landscapes and polluted water and air with indisputable consequences for human health. Elsewhere our rapidly changing climate has heralded more frequent and severe storms, floods, droughts, and famine. It is a question of justice that these unnatural disasters have and will continue to affect the most under-privileged among us, while those most responsible are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.
However, despite both the solidified science of anthropogenic climate change and the human misery intimate to these unfolding calamities, the United States continues on a trajectory of sustained reliance on carbon-polluting fuels.
It has been 30 years since global warming entered public discussion; polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans want bolder action on climate from our elected officials ; the technologies needed to build an alternative energy system — conservation, efficiency, and clean renewable power — exist today and, if deployed, would pay for themselves many times over.
So, what is the hold-up?
Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry has displayed a preeminent commitment to seeing proven reserves extracted, sold, and burned — no matter the costs to our atmosphere and environment. Employing arsenals of lobbyists, extortionary political campaign contributions, and crusades of climate science disinformation, coal, oil and gas companies have fought to stymie and stall any public policy that might jeopardize their profits; this includes ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, a federal cap-and-trade bill, and, presently, Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
In order to preserve a safe and habitable planet for our children and our children’s children, studies show that we must reign in runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The international community has agreed that warming beyond two degrees celsius would precipitate unacceptably dangerous climate disruption and, potentially, ecological collapse. To stay under 2° we must cap global emissions at 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This “carbon budget” necessitates leaving fourth-fifths of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
Although laudable, neither the university’s internal sustainability efforts nor the environmental research of its professors will be sufficient to address the political nature of our climate crisis.
Furthermore, our investment in business predicated on carbon pollution amounts to an endorsement of an inherently destructive business model. Professor James Engell of Harvard writes “The fossil-fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned. Second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.”
Our mission statement declares the university to be “dedicated to the creation and application of knowledge” in an “environment where creative scholars generate bold ideas, innovate in the face of complex challenges and distinguish themselves as active citizens of the world.”
And our vision statement, adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1994, reads “we will strive to be a model for society at large. We want to foster an attitude of ‘giving back,’ an understanding that active citizen participation is essential to freedom and democracy, and a desire to make the world a better place.”
The ask of the global divestment campaign — freezing any new investment in the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies and selling off all current holdings within five years — embraces the commendable hallmarks of our mission and the values that drew us to matriculate at Tufts University. Inversely, few acts are more antithetical to active citizenship, the application of knowledge, and innovation in the face of complex challenges than the continued profiteering from fossil fuels.
South African Archbishop, and recipient of an honorary degree from Tufts University, Desmond Tutu declared, “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from rising temperatures, seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”
It is our jumbo sense of justice that calls us to push for divestment.
Today though, we stand outside your board meeting to insist that, as a Trustee of this university, it is not only a moral imperative but also your fiduciary responsibility to divest our endowment from fossil fuels. When making investment decisions, the duty of prudence demands trustees take into consideration both general economic conditions as well as any asset’s special relationship to the institution’s stated purposes. It would be a disavowal of this duty to delay withdrawing financial support from corporations threatening the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. This is especially true in light of the student government resolution, student-wide referendum, faculty letters, and alumni petitions calling for divestment.
Additionally and irrespective of our ethical obligation — within the last two years and since the university last reviewed the proposal — fossil fuel divestment has become more feasible.
By the People’s Climate March in September 2014, it was reported that 181 institutions, representing $50 billion in assets had joined the blossoming movement by committing to divest their holdings of fossil fuel stocks. Advocates pledged to triple those numbers by the December 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris. Months before the negotiations, rather than triple, the quantity of funds committed to fossil fuel divestment had witnessed a fifty-fold increase, exploding to $2.6 trillion in total combined assets. Although the divestment movement has its roots in mission-driven institutions such as faith-based organizations, universities, NGOs, and charitable foundations, 2015 has seen the growth of divestment campaigns and pledges into large pension funds and private-sector actors. Within the last year financial analysts and central bankers have increasingly been sounding the alarm of significant and quantifiable risk to holding carbon assets in a carbon constrained world. University commitments have tripled in the last year with 40 educational institutions with $130 billion in assets pledging to divest. This includes full divestment commitments at Hampshire and Pitzer Colleges, The New School, Rhode Island School of Design and Syracuse University and partial divestment commitments (usually from coal and/or tar sands) at Unity College, Georgetown University, Stanford University, University of California, University of Dayton, and University of Washington.
As the movement has grown, eliminating carbon assets from our endowment has become a significantly less challenging prospect. Fund managers, responding to the ballooning demand, have created co-mingled funds that are fossil-free and investment advisors have reported that the restriction of a fossil-free portfolio would add only infinitesimal risk to return.
Considering the above, we demand that The Board thoroughly consider fossil fuel divestment as the most powerful statement our institution of higher learning can make towards in confronting the climate crisis. The students of this community look forward to working with you and urge you to guide Tufts towards taking leadership on the greatest challenge of our time.
Tufts Climate Action