After years of student pressure and internal dialogue, Columbia announced on Friday that it will not directly invest in publicly-traded oil and gas companies for the foreseeable future. The University said it may make exceptions for companies with credible plans for net-zero emissions by 2050.
While Columbia already holds no direct investments in these companies, the announcement by the board of trustees formalized this policy. In addition, the University said it will not direct new investments toward private funds that largely benefit oil and gas companies.
“The effort to achieve net zero emissions must be sustained over time, employing all the tools available to us and engaging all who are at Columbia today and those who will follow us in the years ahead,” University President Lee Bollinger said in a press release. “This announcement reaffirms that commitment and reflects the urgent need for action.”
These changes are the result of a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing. The ACSRI did not recommend complete divestment from fossil fuels, citing in part Columbia’s responsibility to incentivize companies to achieve a low-carbon economy. It instead proposed creating a divestment list of companies no longer compliant with Columbia’s new oil and gas investment criteria. Per ACSRI’s guidance, the University also said it will look into possibly applying non-investment policies for other industries with outsized greenhouse gas emissions.
This announcement happened to coincide with the first day of the tuition strike led by Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America, for which the group had been amassing signatures and preparing since the fall. YDSA co-chair Emmaline Bennett, TC ’22, believes at least 1,000 Columbia College students have withheld their spring tuition payments. Although the founding purpose of the strike was a 10 percent reduction to cost of attendance due to the pandemic, strikers are also calling for, among other economic and social justice demands, complete University divestment from fossil fuels.
YDSA organizers are considering the University’s announcement to be an encouraging sign of their movement’s strength but nevertheless an inadequate response to their demands. Leena Yumeen, CC ’23 and YDSA’s coalitions coordinator, has been researching Columbia’s fossil fuel investments and noted that the University makes an important distinction between direct investments and indirect investments. Though the University is currently committed to not invest in publicly-traded oil and gas companies, this restriction does not apply to investments not managed by Columbia.
“Unless they very openly commit to divesting indirect holdings, there are still ways that they can subvert the statements that they have made regarding fossil fuel investment,” Yumeen said.
In a statement on Saturday, YDSA organizers said, “We are optimistic that this reflects an agreement on the University’s part that alleged institutional priorities should be reflected through investment decisions.”
YDSA is coalition partners with the Sunrise Movement at Columbia and Extinction Rebellion Columbia, two student groups advocating for fossil fuel divestment. The University’s announcement comes after years of student activism from these groups, including demonstrations, sit-ins, and a hunger strike.
In response to pressure in March 2017, Columbia divested from thermal coal producers but continued to invest in the fossil fuel industry. A tax form submitted to the IRS for July 2017 to June 2018 showed millions of dollars still invested in oil and gas companies like Merit Energy Company and Canaan Resources Partners.
Extinction Rebellion members Savannah Pearson, CC ’20, and Abby Schroering, GSAS ’23, were part of a group of four that went on the hunger strike in November 2019 for complete fossil fuel divestment. The following month, Extinction Rebellion submitted a divestment proposal to ACSRI. Pearson; Schroering; and Michael Cusack, TC ’21, presented their proposal in February 2020, which helped guide the ASCRI toward submitting their recommendation to Bollinger and the board of trustees in November 2020.
Cusack said their proposal was not much different than the proposal resulting in the thermal coal divestment. The University’s change in response also has to do with recent student activism and Columbia’s June 2020 announcement of its Climate School, according to Pearson.
“The arguments that the administration itself has been making against divestment are slowly but surely unraveling,” Pearson said. “One of the main arguments we heard was that it was hypocritical for the University to divest when the University itself runs partly on fossil fuels for its energy. I think that the administration had to come to terms with the fact that it’s far, far more hypocritical to be opening up a climate school without having divested from fossil fuels.”
A concern for YDSA and Extinction Rebellion is that any oil and gas company with a credible plan for zero net emissions by 2050, regardless of its progress toward that goal, can be eligible for reinvestment. Even so, Columbia’s announcement comes as a victory for these groups.
The fight for fossil fuel divestment now turns to holding the University accountable for the promises it has made, while pushing it toward applying non-investment to other high-carbon sectors. Cusack said that, although fossil fuels are a large target in the fight to slow global warming, the ultimate goal is not divestment from fossil fuels but lowering greenhouse gas emissions as a whole.
“Divestment is great insofar as it signals priorities, and the priority that we’re actually trying to support here is one of tangible decarbonization,” Cusack said. “That’s what the University has to do now. It has to actually decarbonize.”