We’ve all received the climate change survey from Penn. If anything comes of it, this is a positive step, though it does not really touch on Penn’s actual climate policy. While ideas that we see in this survey, such as offering more courses about climate change, are important, such ideas do not mean much when the institution providing those courses is actively contributing to the climate crisis. This brings us to Penn's "audacious" Climate and Sustainability Action Plan. Seeking to “Pennovate” a greener future, the Penn Administration has given themselves nearly two decades (until 2042) to make the campus carbon neutral. When introducing this task, then-president Amy Gutmann compared it to the moon landing.
Never mind that going to the Moon only took 7 years. Never mind that 131 countries (and the city of Philadelphia itself) have signed pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050. Never mind that Harvard has given itself until 2026 to accomplish the same feat, and plans on being entirely carbon free by 2050. Never mind that the entire Google Corporation is already carbon neutral and will be carbon free by 2030.
Here at Penn, if we decide to undertake the so-called audacious task of making our campus carbon neutral, then we will. In as slow and profitable a way as possible.
Besides the fact that Penn has given itself 19 years to do a job it could easily do in five, making Penn's campus carbon neutral doesn't really get at the heart of the University’s role in climate change. Last year, Penn made another set of impressive sounding statements about its investment portfolio.
“Penn does not directly hold investments in any companies focused on the production of fossil fuels,” President Liz Magill and Trustees Chair Scott L. Bok said. “This includes Penn holding no investments in two hundred of the companies with the largest potential carbon emissions content in their reserves.”
However, Penn itself notes that this does not cover the majority of Penn’s endowment, the majority of which is held and managed by private equity firms. Here, Penn’s policy is nonsense. Managers must “factor the implications of a de-carbonizing economy into their investment[s]” and encourage managers to support or push the companies they invest in to … achieve emissions reductions. If the underlying companies are not responsive to constructive proposals … or if they fail to show credible progress towards meaningful goals,” then Penn’s managers are to “make a rigorous evaluation of whether the positions remain appropriate investments.”
In other words, Penn’s policy for responsible investment is to encourage the managers of private equity firms to encourage the companies they invest in to reduce emissions. If the companies do not, the managers of the private equity films are supposed to think about divestment. But no pressure because everyone knows that private equity is a stressful industry and the last thing anyone wants is for money managers to have to consider the social and ethical implications of their investments. Nowhere in any of this is Penn itself responsible for anything.
Penn has also pointed out that during the transition away from fossil fuels that they have undertaken, they still continue to utilize fossil fuels as an important energy source. They claim that “selling fossil fuel investments does not end fossil fuel production or create clean energy alternatives, and it risks transferring ownership to buyers who may care little for the environmental consequences.” In other words, since people are going to be producing and profiting off of fossil fuels anyway, it might as well be Penn. And really, it’s better for Penn to be the one who profits because at least they (or rather the private equity firm in question) care. If Penn had any sort of clear and actionable policy set to foster carbon reduction in businesses whose shares are held by private equity firms in place, this might be sensible, but as it is, it amounts to nothing. But we have to keep the University profitable, right?
Except Penn is a University, a non-profit that exists to serve a social function. And let’s say by some miracle Penn did divest entirely from fossil fuels tomorrow, it’s hardly as though the economy would come crashing down. Our endowment is big, but not that big. About the only thing at risk there is a few quarterly returns and personal payouts.
To be clear, Penn should invest, taking this existential threat to our planet as an opportunity to embody the ideals we supposedly stand for. The need for technologies and products is an opportunity to create them and in doing so, we will provide our entire society with tools and resources to achieve their own goals. Penn can use the need for green technologies to make Philadelphia into the center of a green revolution with better businesses that redress economic inequality and respect workers. Penn has the resources, Philadelphia has the labor and skills, and we — the students and faculty, administration and staff — have the expertise to find solutions to global problems.
In this challenge, we have an opportunity to invent an entire new paradigm of green businesses with practices that empower the workers, and to be a facilitator for a social transformation. However, the administration's audacious plan is nothing more than greenwashing a rigid adherence to the status quo. In fact, Penn already does some of this. As they note, they are “proactively supporting the energy transition by identifying promising investments that are part of it.” They estimate that they have only invested approximately 1.25% of the endowment in such companies. (It sounds much more impressive when they say “$250 million of the endowment,” which is, again, approximately $20 billion.)
Is my vision of a university using its resources and expertise to actually improve society idealistic? Very. But that's what it actually means to be audacious. That's what the moon landing was. It was making the impossible a reality. Penn has access to some of the finest minds on the planet and frankly, an absurd amount of money. If this University community can't change the world, then who can? We just have to hold the administration and our social impact to the same standard that we hold our academic work to.
JASON HAGLER is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Their research focuses on early societies in China and the development of complex systems from a social network perspective. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org.