Endowments, Divestment, and Climate Change

Our communities, environment and future are threatened by rising global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels. From the alarming acidification of the oceans, to rapidly-melting ice sheets at the earth’s poles, to the recent skyrocketing of global food prices due to drought in the U.S., to more frequent tropical storms and natural disasters, the negative effects of climate change are undeniable.

Here are the three numbers you shouldn’t forget:

2 degrees — Almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the climate dice are loaded for both devastating floods and drought.

565 gigatons — Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels now, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees above the 0.8 we’ve already warmed, which means that we’re already 4/5 of the way to the 2 degree target.

2,795 gigatons — The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming.

For more on the math, check out gofossilfree.org/faq/ and www.carbontracker.org/carbonbubble

This means that if the fossil fuel industry is left to their own devices and not stopped, they are capable of literally destroying our climate.

The Stark Reality of Climate Change

We have a duty to take responsibility for the dire problems that climate change — and, thus, the fossil fuel industry and its effects — wreaks upon our world. We believe Tufts should not be invested in corporations which are involved with the extraction, production, or distribution of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies pollute without paying for the damage that they inflict on society — it’s what allows them to grow so fabulously profitable. But that leaves other entities feeling the pressure — entities, for example, like the populations situated on coastlines that are now being eaten away by steadily rising oceanic tides, due to increased atmospheric temperature.

Scientists unanimously agree we are now in the eleventh hour of climate change. Our communities, environment and future are threatened by rising global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels. A study commissioned by the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, released in September 2012, predicts that globally 100 million people will die from the burning of fossil fuels and related climate catastrophe by the year 2030. We cannot stand by idly and watch as climate change wreaks such havoc on human civilization, particularly when those who have done the least to cause this disaster, the world’s poorest nations, will disproportionately suffer most.

As students with a strong stake in the sustainability of human life on earth, we see it as amoral imperative that society stops burning fossil fuels and transitions to renewable energy as quickly as possible. Therefore we believe it is morally wrong for our university to invest and profit off of corporations that are involved in the extraction, production, or distribution of fossil fuels. In short, we ask Tufts to divest because financing our education is not worth selling our future.

About Endowments

Most schools have two pots of money: a general operating account, which is like a checking account, and an endowment, which is like a savings account.

Principal is the original amount invested, the $$$ that makes up the endowment. This money is the interested, and the in interest or returns into the operating account for the University and and partly back into the endowment.

Tufts’ endowment is valued at $1.4 billion. It is invested in public stocks, private equity, real estate, bonds, and mutual funds. Tufts does not disclose which companies it invests in, but  the fossil fuel industry makes up about 20% of any typical investment portfolio.

Tufts has not denied that it is invested in the fossil fuel industry. This means that we invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the very industry that is wrecking our planet, giving them money to operate and then profiting off their activities.

What is Divestment?

Divestment is the colloquial term used for Dis-Investment, the process of selling one’s stock or other investment in a company or mutual fund.  The process of divestment has been used in many contexts over the course of history, and has been proven to be an effective way for those with investments to place pressure and influence on corporate power.

Why Divest? Why Now?

 We recognize that divestment may at first glance seem like an indirect route to solving climate change. Some have offered that public policy and governmental intervention is needed to avert us from climate disaster, and they are absolutely right–we need government action on climate change now. Yet we must look once again at the sobering reality. Since James Hansen first testified to congress on the dangers of global warming in 1988, no meaningful climate legislation has passed in the United States. We did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and at every United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the US has not committed to binding emissions reduction pledges. Finally, we are far from passing any legislation to tax carbon or create a cap and trade system at the national level. For over two decades, no Democrat- or Republican-led administration has made any significant progress on this issue.

You don’t need to be a climate scientist to know why: powerful lobbying interests–the oil, coal, and gas industry–have spent an unprecedented amount of money in lobbying and campaign finance, and have been successful at waging a war on science to portray climate change as a liberal hoax. The fossil fuel industry is the single most profitable industry in history. The top 5 oil companies–BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell–made $137 billion in profits in 2011. In the same year those same 5 companies spent $65.7 million in lobbying, and $1,665,859 in campaign contributions. The Koch Brothers, who own a corporate empire of fossil fuel extraction and production, have spent $69 million in lobbying expenditures in the past decade, as well as spending $60 million in the funding of climate science denial. We have seen the fossil fuel industry use its record wealth to block climate change legislation, stand in the way of investments in clean and renewable energy, and even push for over $10 billion a year in unjustified federal subsidies.

We believe divestment is a direct way to disengage from the fossil fuel industry and to publicly denounce and separate our institution from their immoral and irresponsible business model. As a university, Tufts has little or no sway over the politicians who write climate legislation. As argued above, the fossil fuel industry has far more power over the political system than we ever will. This is the stark reality, yet it does not mean Tufts is helpless. Tufts, along with every institution in the country, can decide where to invest its money, and make a deliberate choice not to do business with the fossil fuel industry.

Divestment is a sophisticated strategy that has been successful in transforming entrenched crises. In the 1980s, a divestment movement across 150 college campuses drew significant attention to South African apartheid, led the United States government to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime, and caused over $1 billion in capital flight from South Africa. All of these factors contributed to the ultimate end of apartheid. In the early 2000s, college and university divestment also helped to draw worldwide attention to the genocide in Darfur.

Is Divestment Possible?

Yes. Given Tufts’ current investment practices, it is possible to divest from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. At Tufts, the board of Trustees hires fund managers to administer the endowment investments. Therefore,  the Tufts board claims not to know the specific holdings in every portfolio of the fund managers, since they are managed externally. We are not asking Tufts to disclose all of its holdings to the public or to violate its current non-disclosure agreements. We are asking Tufts to request that all of its fund managers apply a negative screen for the 200 publicly traded companies that hold the vast majority of the world’s carbon reserves. Applying a negative screen against a company or industry is standard practice in investing, and is entirely possible for fossil fuel divestment.

Divesting Tufts’ endowment from fossil fuels does not have to lower investment returns or hurt the ability for Tufts to provide financial aid to its students. Studies have shown funds that screen for socially irresponsible investments, such as fossil fuels, can perform as well if not better than traditional mutual funds. A study by the investment management firm Phillips, Hager & North compares the performance of Domini, one of the top socially and environmentally screened funds in the world, to that of the traditional S&P 500 stock index. The report concludes: “the chief finding of this research is that socially responsible investing does not result in lower investment returns.”

What is Climate Justice?

Research shows that climate change will most severely impact populations of society that are already marginalized. Climate change is not just an environmental issue — is is a concern for anybody interested in confronting racism, sexism and economic injustice.

Click here to read how women are severely impacted by climate change.

Click here to learn how racism and environmental destruction intersected in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Click here for a discussion on how climate change disproportionately impacts poor communities in the Global South.