Until recently, oil ran in the veins of the Rockefeller family. The heirs of a fortune that was created by a monopoly on the oil industry have decided to wipe their hands clean. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic organization created by the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose wealth was generated by Standard Oil, announced in September 2014 that they would divest, or sell their shares, from coal, tar sands and other fossil fuel companies “as quickly as is prudent over the next few years.” Since then, the Fund has been limiting its investments in fossil fuels while increasing its holdings in renewable energy. Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, the chair of the Fund, explained that the Fund is divesting because “continuing down the fossil fuel path is both immoral and financially imprudent.”
Today, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Stephen Heintz, is meeting with the Investment Committee, a subcommittee of the Tufts University Board of Trustees (who direct the university’s financial decisions). They plan to discuss the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s divestment process with the Tufts Trustees. This meeting is one of the outcomes of Tufts Climate Action’s April 2015 sit-in in President Monaco’s office.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund uses revenue from its investments to provide grants to further its mission of advancing “social change that contributes to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.” Similarly, Tufts uses revenue from its endowment to operate the university. The difference is that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund seeks to align its investments with its mission statement. The Fund’s decision to divest from oil, coal and gas holdings in favor of investments in renewable energy sends a loud, clear message: fossil fuels have no place in our future.
We in Tufts Climate Action agree. It is hypocritical and reckless for our university, which claims to value sustainability and exists to prepare students for the future, to invest in an industry that threatens that very future. Tufts’ sustainable initiatives – Tufts Recycles!, Eco-Reps, the Talloires Declaration, the new cogeneration power plant – are undermined by the fact that they are an attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of the companies that the university supports with its investments. Climate change is the primary threat to peace, justice and stability of our generation and those to come. In addition, those who rely most on a stable climate for subsistence, such as Indigenous People and citizens of less industrialized countries (often People of Color), are already those most affected by the climate crisis and are the ones who contribute least to causing it.
Divestment attacks a root cause of climate change because it is a refusal to do business with the corporations who profit from dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tufts Climate Action (previously Tufts Divest for Our Future), was founded in 2012 to call on our university to remove its investments from coal, oil and gas companies. Despite overwhelming support from TCU Senate, a student referendum, and hundreds of student, faculty and alumni petition signatories, President Monaco announced in February 2014 that divestment “is not feasible at this time,” citing the increased risk of a less diverse portfolio of investments.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, though fully aware of the potential financial challenges of divestment, was not deterred from making the ethical decision, and sought alternative investments in the clean energy sector. In fact, the Fund explicitly refused to compromise on revenue. “We were not willing to lose any money. Our business is giving away money so we were not willing to take any reduction in returns,” reported Wayne (the Fund’s chair) in The Guardian.
Divestment is not an easy, simple process. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund recognizes that. We recognize that. Divestment requires some difficult decisions, such as ending relationships with fund managers unwilling to manage a fossil-free portfolio. But the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose endowment is valued at $829 million (about half the size of Tufts’ $1.59 billion endowment), has been dedicated to fossil fuel disinvestment, and their progress shows that divestment is a viable option.
By refusing to divest, Tufts continues to fund fossil-fueled injustice. As students, we need to hold our university accountable. Young people such as ourselves are the ones who have to live with the repercussions of inaction. Even the Rockefeller Brother Fund knows that the fossil fuel industry is now on the wrong side of history. It is time for Tufts and the decision-makers on the Board of Trustees to uphold the motto “Pax et Lux” and align the endowment with the university’s mission. In the wise words of Albus Dumbledore: “there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” That time is now. We must cease to do what is easy – profiting off of the fossil fuel industry – and choose to do what is right – investing in funds that promote a just and sustainable future.