This week, we, the undergraduates of Penn, face a historic decision. We see the first referendum in six years, and it’s on the issue of climate change. We must decide whether or not the student body should send a mandate to the University administration that investment in fossil fuel companies is unacceptable. However, this demand is one we should not make — it will harm us, Penn and the environmental movement. Voting to divest will cause far more harm than good.
Penn Fossil Free, an offshoot of the “Go Fossil Free” movement developed by radical environmental group 350.org, has made strong arguments and engaged directly with the Penn community. Peter Thacher’s guest column in Thursday’s The Daily Pennsylvanian is commendable for its strong emphasis on the dangers of climate change. He challenges Penn to “take a stand on major issues” and cites the dangers of not acting on the massive threat of global warming. But the way we, the students of Penn, as well as the University itself should help fix climate change is not by divesting, but taking concrete actions.
Divestment is a financial decision disguised as a moral stance. If fossil fuel companies were true financial liabilities, as alleged by Fossil Free Penn, then Peter Ammon, Penn’s chief investment officer, would drop them from our investment portfolio. Instead, divestment is significant because it means an organization — in this case Penn — is choosing to weaken its economic base in order to make a public point. Voting yes to the referendum means you, a Penn student, wish to see our financial endowment be limited, and potentially weaker. This is an endowment that funds new developments like Penn Park, our Financial Aid program or hiring our diverse faculty.
Is taking such a moral stance worth it? Many would argue yes, it is wrong to make profits from such a dangerous and evil industry and, without brave individuals and groups making a statement, systematic change cannot occur. Some argue that by taking our money out of companies such as ExxonMobil — with a market cap of $377 billion — and re-investing in renewables, we can help foster a new energy economy. However, Penn has a $9.6 billion endowment that invests less than one percent in any single company, or alternatively, owns less than 0.02 percent of ExxonMobil — selling will not change anything. Instead, we may want to buy more of ExxonMobil and collaborate with other universities in order to force changes to their behavior as large shareholders. Simply selling our shares will hardly affect them at all.
This divestment statement however will cause additional harm: it will deepen ideological divides on the environmental issue, when everyone — Republican, Democrat, art student or engineer — should agree that we must act swiftly and decisively to save our planet from further damage. Instead of trying to cause behavioral shifts through punitive actions — divestment, banning SUVs or making our houses colder during this infernal winter — we should seek out less divisive, common sense actions that everyone agrees with. Incentivizing more fuel efficient cars, switching to more efficient light bulbs or replacing coal power plants with cleaner natural gas are ideas that everyone supports. No one is upset when we discover new research — by professor Chris Murray — that enables homeowners to have cheaper solar panels, or when professors Daeyeon Lee, Kathleen Stebe and Shu Yang develop new membranes to clean up fracking water, or when the Alberta Energy Regulator (of Keystone XL/tar sands infamy) hires a team of Penn law professors led by Cary Coglianese to find safer regulatory practices.
Investing in research, economic development and education is invaluable and universally celebrated. Banning SUVs or calling out fossil fuel companies however, causes fights.
To save our planet, we must focus on actions that have an impact, instead of symbolic actions that feel good but have little real-world benefit. Divestment is one of those actions — it sure feels good to demonize the fossil fuel industry, but our time and energy can be better spent enacting concrete changes that benefit everyone around the world. Climate change should be a unifying idea, a call to arms, but instead, actions like divestment keep it stagnating as an ideological battle.
SASHA KLEBNIKOV is an Engineering junior from New York, studying mechanical engineering. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a writer for Penn Sustainability Review.
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