On Sept. 22, the University Board of Trustees announced that Penn would not be divesting from fossil fuels. This decision comes after a March 2015 referendum in which 33 percent of students voted, with almost 90 percent favoring divestment.
In April 2016, Fossil Free Penn released an open letter advocating divestment signed by 100 faculty members from 10 of Penn’s 12 schools. This overwhelming display of support from students and faculty alike was not enough to persuade the trustees that the time has come for divestment and real action on the environment.
Penn’s divestment would be a powerful signal of disapproval against the actions of the fossil fuel industry. Initiatives like the Climate Action Plan and related environmental research have little impact in comparison to the effects of maintaining investments with fossil fuel companies, which are major contributors to carbon dioxide emissions and the health of local communities where oil companies operate. Penn’s decision not to divest is hypocritical.
Whether or not Penn’s investments have a meaningful impact on the finances of fossil fuel companies, continuing to invest makes an immediate statement about where Penn’s values lie.
The University’s investments directly support an industry which harms the climate, and whose actions disproportionately affect those living in poverty. The school can’t truly claim to have pro-environmental values and encourage students to pursue studies that could produce environmental solutions while Penn continues to invest in fossil fuels.
The Board of Trustees decided not to divest partly because the actions of the fossil fuel industry don’t meet their definition of moral evil, which is “activity on par with apartheid or genocide.” The Daily Pennsylvanian Opinion Board questions this threshold of morality. As Penn students, we can’t support the institution we attend in its funding of companies whose actions are immoral, discriminatory or dangerous and have been shown to lead to “apartheid or genocide,” even if such atrocities are not full-blown. This standard for divestment is unreasonably high.
The University Engagement and Action section of the Board of Trustees’ letter does not adequately explain their refusal to divest. They suggest enhancing existing efforts at Penn relating to climate change, as well as considering the environmental practices of the companies in which Penn invests.
However, the business models of fossil fuel companies intrinsically lead to detrimental effects on the climate, meaning that even those with the best practices still release high levels of emissions in order to conduct business and remain profitable.
Divestment is the best way for the school to show that it genuinely cares about climate change and the environmental future of its students. By its refusal to take action by divesting, Penn demonstrates that it doesn’t consider climate change — widely considered our generation’s most important threat — to be a real concern.