Last month, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice submitted a new fossil fuel divestment proposal to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing. In November 2013, the group, then called Barnard Columbia Divest, had petitioned ACSRI to recommend that Columbia divest from fossil fuels. This proposal was rejected.
There's no denying the validity of the cause. Global warming is a crisis within our nation and around the world, and the consensus of the scientific community serves as a resounding call to action: Change is required, sooner rather than later. And yet, there is reason to be skeptical about CDCJ's demands. Admirable though their aims might be, CDCJ is presupposing a discussion about divestment that has not occurred on the University-wide level.
ACSRI, the committee petitioned by CDCJ, was founded in 2000 to "advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University's endowment." In order for ACSRI to recommend divestment, proposals must meet three criteria, one of which requires a consensus at Columbia on the issue at hand. Columbia has not met that criterion.
Many of Columbia's peer institutions have raised strong counterarguments against divestment. MIT and Harvard, for example, have rejected divestment as a strategy on the grounds that as a strategy of "large-scale public shaming," it's detrimental to productive engagement with fossil fuel companies. And Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia's Earth Institute, refused to sign an open letter addressed to President Lee Bollinger calling for divestment, due to uncertainty about the efficacy of institutional divestment; despite accepting divestment as a reasonable option, Sachs rejected the idea that divestment was the best option. In the face of these arguments, CDCJ does not appear to have convinced the student body that divestment is the appropriate response to the climate change crisis. There is an important distinction between the student body's belief that climate change is real, and the belief that the best solution is divestment.
This debate is CDCJ's to win—eventually. Fossil fuel companies have been dishonest before, and engagement is, at the very least, a questionable proposal. And yet, it isn't clear to us that CDCJ's campaign has clearly and convincingly articulated its points to the student body. By campaigning to push ACSRI to recommend divestment, CDCJ has left campus opinion by the wayside, at its own detriment. In one of the few cases in which an awareness campaign would have made perfect sense, "awareness" as a step was skipped in its entirety.
ACSRI's rejection letter in 2013 clearly delineated that the committee was not rejecting actions related to fossil fuels, but specifically the proposal put forth by Barnard Columbia Divest. In light of this, it is frustrating that CDCJ's proposal has not markedly changed between now and 2013.
Earlier this year, CDCJ decided to pursue total divestment over divestment from coal specifically. However, this overlooks the capacity for meaningful, actionable change on a smaller scale. MIT, which rejected outright divestment, is moving towards "targeted divestment … from tar sands and coal." And both Stanford and Georgetown have divested their endowments from coal. Given this pattern and ACSRI's latest rejection, eschewing the practical for the symbolic may not be a sustainable strategy (no pun intended). We're not convinced that Columbians should give up the fight for full divestment. However, that fight needs a more efficient and engaged organization than what currently exists.
One of CDCJ's new requests is for the University to implement a freeze on any new investments in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. This proposal makes a lot of sense, and it plays into Columbians' general agreement that, at the very least, Columbia should not invest more of its endowment in fossil fuels. To that end, when evaluating CDCJ's newest proposal, ACSRI can propose targeted divestment and a freeze on new investments and know with a fair degree of certainty that it is dutifully carrying out its mandate. The winds are blowing in favor of targeted divestment.
However, outside of these relatively safe proposals, the student body is not overwhelmingly on board with full divestment. Some students likely share in Harvard President Faust's belief that a university endowment is "not an instrument to impel social or political change." Others will agree with MIT that engagement is a more sensible approach than divestment. This is the debate CDCJ is most needed in, and where its absence is most worrisome.
Toward the end of last year, the issue of private prisons was on many students' minds, and the evils of private prisons were clearly articulated to the student body. Divestment from private prisons made perfect sense. The same does not hold true for total fossil fuel divestment.
What we're missing most at Columbia is a robust discourse about the costs and benefits of divestment. CDCJ can be the conduit for this discussion. But currently, however viable an option it may be in other circumstances, the symbolic movement is at a disadvantage when compared to a more practical approach. The Columbia community must be more informed before future determinations are made regarding total divestment.
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