At the most recent fireside chat, I asked University President Lee Bollinger whether he would support divesting the University’s $8 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. He said that while he has not yet taken a position, his inclination is to oppose the idea. Citing that the endowment’s primary purpose is to fund the University’s operations, he said divestment should only be used in the most extreme circumstances.
President Bollinger’s answer was fair and rational—and a great reason why it is time to sell our fossil fuel stocks.
Sustainability is not just one worthy cause out of many. The fight for a stable climate and a healthy environment is the ultimate fight. It will determine whether future generations have the opportunity to lead happy and productive lives, to strive for personal and societal betterment, to innovate and explore, and to enjoy what remains of the natural world.
According to The Economist, over one billion people in Asia alone rely on glacial meltwater for drinking and farming. Imagine trying to find a new water source for just a fraction of this population. Imagine the chaos that will result when we realize we cannot.
Climate change is not merely about higher temperatures, but rather a whole slew of problems that arise when nature gets disrupted. A warming planet will cause hurricanes such as Superstorm Sandy to become more powerful and more destructive. It will lead to ocean waters that are too acidic for fishing communities, and too high for coastal populations and island nations. It will cause droughts that make farmland less productive, floods that displace millions, and changes in insect populations that lead to an increase in infectious diseases.
What lies ahead if we do not take action is not just a more extreme version of what we have already experienced. Awaiting us are climate tipping points—and once we reach them, even a complete end to fossil fuel combustion might not be enough to save the planet. That is not alarmism—it is the view of leading climate scientists, many of whom are employed right here at Columbia.
Divestment at Columbia is for extreme circumstances. If an industry that could harm all of humanity for all time is not extreme, I’m not sure what is.
President Bollinger also said he worries that fossil fuel divestment would not make a significant difference. But for several reasons, it likely would. A recent study from the University of Oxford found that, while divestment would not directly cause financial harm to the fossil fuel industry, it is an effective tool because of its social and political effects. In other words, it will help the public understand that fossil fuel companies are not just “the guys who keep the lights on,” so much as they are “the guys who own five times as much dirty energy as we can safely burn, and who nevertheless spend billions each year exploring for more.”
Finally, divestment would likely affect the endowment positively. Tom Steyer, the founder of a $20 billion hedge fund, recently wrote: “I have directed my financial team to divest my holdings of fossil fuel investments so that I will have a fossil fuel free portfolio myself—in part because I am convinced it will outperform the market.” His concern is that as countries begin to regulate carbon, the fossil fuel industry will be stuck with vast reserves of fossil fuel that cannot legally be used. Thus, the stock prices—which to some extent reflect a company’s assets—would decline as coal and oil become “stranded assets.”
The tactic is divestment. The goal is to strip fossil fuel companies of their legitimacy, and in turn, to make strong climate legislation a political inevitability.
President Bollinger seems to me a wise, reasonable, and compassionate man. I would be excited to work with him to pursue a fossil-fuel-free endowment. But, along with Barnard Columbia Divest and the Columbia University College Democrats, I am also ready for a proactive and aggressive campaign.
The referendum for fossil fuel divestment was held last week—the first ballot initiative in University history—and a full 73 percent of Columbia College students who voted endorsed our campaign. Our petition has been signed by well over 10 percent of undergraduates, and all nine candidates in the recent University Senate election also voiced complete support. And if all this does not lead to divestment, we are ready to employ stronger tactics in the months ahead.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a member of Barnard Columbia Divest and the Columbia University College Democrats.
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