Climate change is the most urgent issue of our time. Due to virtually unrestrained burning of fossil fuels by developed and developing countries alike, the average temperature of the Earth has increased 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times. While the worst effects of warming are yet to come, extreme droughts and melting ice caps have already ensued, forcing food prices and sea levels around the world to rise. The impacts of these changes are most prominently felt by low-income people in developing countries and underserved communities in the developed world, most of whom are people of color. To avoid further disaster and create a more equitable system of energy, the Paris Agreement, which was negotiated by the world’s countries in December 2015, holds that the average global temperature should not exceed 2 degrees Celsius. In order to accomplish this, we must cease burning fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.
Formed in 2011, Tufts Climate Action (TCA) has been outspoken on the catastrophes of climate change and the consequences of continuing business as usual. In an effort to leverage student power and implicate Tufts University in the climate crisis, the group has joined the worldwide movement calling for fossil fuel divestment. Just one of the many tactics used in the climate movement, which also includes calls for a price on carbon and community ownership of clean energy infrastructure, divestment asks institutions to remove their shares in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. For TCA, this means demanding that the Board of Trustees at Tufts University remove its $80 million investment in oil companies.
Our calls for divestment began in 2011, and in 2013 President Monaco established the Tufts Divestment Working Group, comprised of students, faculty, administrators and trustees, to evaluate the feasibility of divestment and the possibility of creating a small endowment fund for sustainable investments. The official recommendation of the Working Group was that Tufts should not begin the process of divestment at that time, citing financial losses. In further discussions with the administration, it was later revealed that the Investment Committee worried about maintaining a broad portfolio of investments if fossil fuels are excluded from their portfolio. The Working Group did establish the Sustainability Fund in 2015, and designated $1 million for assets that are socially and environmentally responsible. The Sustainability Fund represents only 0.06 percent of Tufts’ nearly two billion dollar endowment.
Tufts Climate Action understands that divestment is a complicated process and recognizes the challenges of a less-diverse portfolio. Nevertheless, TCA believes that aside from conducting an initial assessment about divestment, the university has not seriously and fairly considered the feasibility of adjusting its investment portfolio to reflect its stated values of equity and sustainability. After the Working Group recommendations were released, the university stopped communicating with Tufts Climate Action about steps for divestment. They had made their recommendation to delay consideration of the issue, and believed the job was done.
We have continued to assert that no matter the recommendation of the Working Group, the threat of climate change does not dissipate, nor does our responsibility to be innovative in our approach to mitigating the issue. Fossil fuel divestment is an opportunity for Tufts to uphold the Talloires Declaration and align the the university’s investments with its mission statement. The university cannot end the conversation about divestment just because challenging the status quo seems too difficult. Rather, divestment should be an ongoing discussion about how the university can leverage its resources to create conditions that make divestment possible in the future. With this in mind, Tufts Climate Action has reoriented its campaign around three main demands:
- Tufts University should sell its direct holdings from fossil fuel companies.
- Tufts University should form a coalition with other colleges and universities that calls for a greater supply of fossil free commingled funds. Doing so will give institutions more investment options and allow them to maintain broad portfolios that are sustainable, equitable, and profitable.
- Tufts University should work with student representatives to create mechanisms of greater transparency relating to the endowment, such as an annual report on its investments.e