With Penn recently considering divestment from fossil fuels, yet another college now questions the propriety of investing its endowments based on ethical inclinations. Penn has announced that starting in March, a specially formed committee will convene to reconsider its position on holding fossil fuel related assets in its portfolio.
Several university committees including Stanford’s have successfully pushed their administration to sell all of their assets linked to fossil fuels, but still more, namely Harvard, Yale and Cornell have outright rejected the idea of divestment.
We are now approximately a month past the resolution of the United Nations’ climate change conference COP 21 in Paris, which concluded with an agreement to limit the 196 attending countries’ greenhouse emissions. More specifically, the agreement aims to allow the global temperature to only rise two degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Despite these governmental agreements, environmental activists still turn to other vessels of authority in their concern over climate change. Universities, sitting on hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in endowments, are of a high level of interest in the divestment cause.
A pro-divestment group named Fossil Free, for example, has made universities one of its goals. Fossil Free helps anyone start a divestment campaign at their university and has set up divestment campaigns at countless universities already, including the University of Pennsylvania. Fossil Free Penn’s petition to President Gutmann calls “to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.”
However, even if Penn and other universities were to sell all of their fossil-fuel related assets, their financial divestments would not have a large impact on the companies responsible for production of greenhouse emissions.
A similar situation presented itself when universities divested from South African companies to voice their disapproval of the Apartheid system. Stock prices on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange soared during periods of intense political pressure. According to research done in the aftermath of the Apartheid crisis, prices were not affected by divestment due to the elasticity of the diverse international demand for stocks.
That said, divestment still has noble intentions. Most proponents of divestment realize the strategy’s small potential for financial impact, especially in the case of universities. Much of the hope for divestment rests on the expectation that it will spread awareness of climate change and the detriments of emitting of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. For proponents at universities, the social phenomenon of divestment reaches farther in terms of the attention these issues get from university councils and administrators.
Especially if we consider universities like Penn to be the vanguard of intellectual leadership, the social clout obtained through changing school policies is definitely something worth fighting for. Much like the shantytowns that appeared on Dartmouth’s and many other universities’ college greens to protest the Apartheid system in South Africa, the staged sit-ins and blockades of administration buildings have embodied the divestment movement.
Pro-divestment students at Harvard earlier this year complained about their marginalization after administrators berated their protest tactics in the school newspaper. At Yale, after a divestment proposal was turned down, students trespassed to hold a sit-in and were later arrested.
On the campuses where dissent has flourished, the visible characteristics of protest make the fossil fuel divestment movement seem less like a financial referendum and more like a social movement. It seems counterintuitive that divestment, which solely pertains to a school’s financial portfolio, is not just a business decision. Divestment on campuses has become political, deep-seated and downright personal. However, it does not have to be.
Aside from a handful of universities, most institutions including Penn have not yet weighed in on the fossil fuel divestment debate. Penn certainly has not succumbed to the throes of an environmentalist uprising, and I doubt that starting one would facilitate the productive dialogue that we actually yearn for. If we truly want informed debate to flourish, stirring up adversarial sentiment will do nothing.
While we play around with one of the largest university endowments in the United States, masquerading as financiers and climatologists seems like the opposite of propriety. Possessing an unbridled passion for issues has its place; however, for divestment, we should turn our fervor to learning more about it first.
As the University seriously considers divestment from fossil fuels, the usual flurry of meetings, panels and speaker events will commence. I cannot help but think, what a time for us Penn students to educate ourselves.Comments powered by Disqus
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