The Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment: Global Citizenship and Environmental Stewardship in the Age of Greed

By Scott Novak

I. WHY DIVESTMENT MATTERS

In the United States, the question of whether humans contribute to climate change remains a matter of heated debate among our politicians. So, for a moment, let us pretend that humans do not contribute to climate change at all. More specifically, let us pretend that the burning of fossil fuels has no global warming impact upon our planet.

Unfortunately, if this imaginary scenario really were the case, then our reliance on fossil fuels would still have tremendous negative consequences. It is beyond debate, for in- stance, that the burning of fossil fuels releases pollutants, and if humans are exposed to these pollutants in great quantities, then this can dramatically shorten their lifespans. As Naomi Klein notes in her newest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, “Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.”

China, a country to which many American companies have outsourced their manufacturing facilities, is a good example of a sacrifice zone. Studies by the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning concluded that 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese citizens die prematurely due to air pollution each year.

Then there’s Ecuador, where Texaco dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste from their oil operations into indigenous water supplies, poisoning over 30,000 indigenous people. Texaco operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992 and was later purchased by Chevron in 2001. The pollution in the country remains to this day, and Chevron refuses to pay for the full cost of the damages.

However, one does not have to leave the United States to find sacrifice zones. Coal-mining efforts have destroyed the landscapes of West Virginia, and fracking has poisoned the water supplies of poor communities in the South. In addition to the loss of human lives, all of these fossil fuel extraction efforts result in a loss of natural habitats and biodiversity.

Therefore, given all of these negative consequences of fossil fuels, our current energy system, even without the threat of global climate change, is horribly unsustainable.

When you throw climate change back into the equation—a phenomenon that even Exxon Mobile has admitted exists—our reliance on fossil fuels becomes an existential crisis. The present conflict in Syria illustrates what this crisis looks like on a microcosmic scale. Between 2006 and 2009, Syria experienced one of its worst droughts on record. A 2015 study from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that rising global temperatures might have contributed to the severity of this drought, which caused an estimated 1.5 million farmers to abandon their livelihoods and move to cities in search of work. Unfortunately, the government infrastructure could not support this influx of people. This was a factor that led to protests, which ultimately resulted in the violent conflict in the country that continues to this day. Hence, the Syrian crisis foreshadows future climate change-related crises. It also demonstrates the terrible fact that the people who are least responsible for climate change are destined to suffer the most from its effects.

But there is good news! We can stop this climate crisis from worsening. Countries such as Denmark and Germany and states such as Hawaii already have plans to cut off their reliance on fossil fuels by 2050; a future of 100 percent clean energy is possible. Unfortunately, what’s standing in the way is a lack of political will. As one can infer from the hundreds of public officials that deny climate change, the fossil fuel lobby is a powerful one. That’s why the global fossil fuel divestment movement, which aims to delegitimize the fossil fuel industry, and in doing so lead the way to a sustainable future, is so essential.

Nearly every country in this world, including the United States and China, has commit- ted to keeping the average rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. If warming passes this limit, climate scientists predict that the world will face severe droughts like the one in Syria, rising sea levels that will force millions of people out of their homes, and mass extinctions. In order to keep warming below this 2 degrees Celsius limit, the International Energy Agency calculates that the fossil fuel industry will need to leave approximately 80 percent of their reserves of coal, oil, and gas in the ground. Given that fossil fuel companies have spent billions of dollars acquiring these reserves, they have absolutely no intention of doing that.

In short, the fossil fuel industry resists the transition to sustainable energy because they want to make money. Free market capitalists call this the incentive of profit, but this is a euphemism. In this case, “profit” represents a greed of incalculable magnitude, a greed that is willing to sacrifice humanity’s future in pursuit of short-term gains.

The mission statement of Rollins College rejects this selfish, shortsighted way of operating. As a reminder to all, this mission is worth quoting in full:

Rollins College educates students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, empowering graduates to pursue meaningful lives and productive careers. We are committed to the liberal arts ethos and guided by its values and ideals. Our guiding principles are excellence, innovation, and community. Rollins is a comprehensive liberal arts college.

Rollins is nationally recognized for its distinctive undergraduate and selected graduate programs. We provide opportunities to explore diverse intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic traditions. We are dedicated to scholarship, academic achievement, creative accomplishment, cultural enrichment, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. We value excellence in teaching and rigorous, transformative education in a healthy, responsive, and inclusive environment.

Besides the obvious calls to sustainability in our mission with terms such as “social responsibility” and “environmental stewardship,” an equally significant term is “global citizenship.” Part of what being a “global citizen” entails is that one should care about what has happened in places such as Ecuador or Syria as if it had happened to our own community. How would we feel, for example, if Texaco dumped over 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in Lake Virginia? What if a drought worsened by climate change caused farmworkers to riot in Winter Park? Just because these things aren’t happening here doesn’t mean that they are not happening. Surely we cannot be so morally complacent about where our investments go if we are to act as true global citizens.

In light of all the facts I have written above and inspired by the mission of this college, I decided at the beginning of this past semester to found the Rollins Coalition for Sustainable Investment, a student organization calling on the Rollins Board of Trustees to divest the Rollins endowment from fossil fuel companies.

RCSI is asking that the Board do three things:

  1. Freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies immediately.
  2. Divest within 2 to 5 years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.
  3. Direct at least 1 percent of previous fossil fuels investments into renewable energy and other socially sustainable funds or environmental on-campus initiatives.

Most of the Rollins endowment is invested in comingled funds, and many of these funds do not reveal all of the companies that they invest in so as to protect their financial trade secrets. Despite this fact, it is possible to work towards divesting Rollins from the fossil fuel portions we have already identified. According to Assistant Vice President of Finance Bill Short, Rollins has about 1.2 percent of its $350+ million endowment invested in fossil fuel companies, based on what Rollins can currently identify. This number amounts to around $4 million. Of this number, we are asking that at least 1 percent either be invested in a socially responsible fund or go to fund sustainability initiatives here at Rollins. This number amounts to roughly $40,000, quite a small ask compared to the overall size of the endowment. In fact, because $40,000 is so small, we emphasize the “at least” language in the above statement and encourage the Board to significantly increase this amount.

Divestment can be a gradual process, which is why we are asking for divestment over a 2 to 5 year timeline. One option that came up during a meeting with Rollins’ financial advisors was to work with fund managers to divest from the fossil fuel investments in just one fund this year. Another option would be to divest completely from funds that heavily invest in fossil fuel companies, such as the Vanguard Energy Admiral Fund, a fund that has had negative returns for the college. Unlike the first option, which would take some time, we could enact the latter option immediately. However, the Board is the only body that could make such a decision.

Even though divestment from fossil fuels is a relatively new movement, 41 colleges have committed to divestment so far. These 41 colleges are just a few of the 441 institutions that have divested. Collectively, these institutions possess $2.6 trillion in assets. Each institution that commits to divestment helps to publicly delegitimize the fossil fuel industry, just as the college divestment movement in the 1980s helped to delegitimize and ultimately end apartheid in South Africa.

If Rollins chose to divest from fossil fuel companies, it would be the first college in the state of Florida to do so. This is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate our leadership as a liberal arts college on what is the most pressing issue of our time. Fortunately, as the next two sections will make clear, there are strong economic and moral cases that demonstrate why divestment would be good for both the college and for the planet.

II. THE ECONOMIC CASE

While fossil fuel companies may have been profitable investments in the past, they have become increasingly volatile. In light of the challenge of climate change, this volatility is expected to only increase in the future.

A report published by The Guardian earlier this year reflects this state of affairs. According to the report, “In total, a portfolio of shares with fossil fuel companies included has grown in value by 62.2 percent since 2010, but this compares to the 69.9 percent growth of a fund without fossil fuel investments.” This means that over the past five years, investors who divested from fossil fuels earned an average return of 1.2 percent more than those investors that didn’t. In terms of the Rollins endowment, an additional 1.2 percent return would mean an additional $4 million each year. Clearly, this data contradicts the popular belief that divestment hurts financial performance.

As previously mentioned, to prevent global temperatures rising past 2 degrees Celsius, roughly 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. The global value of these reserves is around $20 trillion, money that will have to be written off when governments finally decide to crack down on fossil fuel companies and shift to sustainable energy systems. This $20 trillion of underground assets is currently factored into the share price of fossil fuel companies, assets these companies cannot be allowed to use. Because of this situation, some economists to predict that we are now in a carbon bubble, a bubble that will soon pop. According to the investment bank HSBC, the industry could face a potential devaluation of up to 60 percent in light of future governmental policies to prevent the burning of fossil fuels. Given these facts, continued investment in fossil fuels would increase our endowment’s risk to the carbon bubble’s devaluation, a devaluation that must happen if we are to stop climate change from worsening.

The Rollins 2015 executive summary of endowment investments shows that Rollins has actually lost money by investing in funds heavily invested in fossil fuel companies. The Vanguard Energy Admiral Fund, which invests primarily in oil, coal, and gas companies, has provided Rollins with a negative 2.8 percent return since the college started investing in the fund. Additionally, the RS Global Natural Resource Fund, which also invests heavily in fossil fuel companies, has given Rollins a whopping negative 9.9 percent return since the college started investing in it. This demonstrates that fossil fuel companies are not the risk-free assets that some people portray them to be. Again, given the climate crisis our world faces, this risk will only grow in the long-term.

The Parnassus Fund is an example of a socially responsible fund that enjoys good returns. This fund, which does not invest in fossil fuel companies, has outperformed the S&P 500 Index for its 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year returns. For example, the Parnassus Fund’s 10- year return was 9.98 percent, while the S&P 500 Index’s was only 6.79 percent. The TIAA- CREF Social Choice Equity Fund is another example of a socially responsible fund that enjoys good returns. It has had a 5-year return of 11.54 percent and a 10-year return of 6.31 percent. Investors and institutions ignore data such as these at their own fiduciary peril.

Note that these are just a few examples of how the divested money could be used, and that the Board could choose to invest the money in campus solar panels or another sustainable project at Rollins instead. Clearly, there is a whole world of economic and environmental opportunity beyond fossil fuel investments.

III. THE MORAL CASE

Much of the moral case for divestment has already been mentioned in the first section of this article. Our reliance on fossil fuels has always required sacrifice zones and contributes to climate change, which is already affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. We have the power to change this dismal state of affairs. Therefore, every institution at every level must do its part to promote clean, sustainable energy solutions. For Rollins and every other college that invests millions (and for some colleges, billions) of dollars in financial markets each year, this means ensuring that their financial portfolios align with this environmental duty.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this line of thinking. During my meetings with the Student Government Association, which has passed a resolution endorsing the Rollins divestment campaign, one student vehemently opposed divestment based upon the idea that, as he said, “Investments are not moral decisions.”

Perhaps the student and other people like him confuse an absence of the feeling of moral duty they have while investing with an actual absence of moral duty itself. Clearly, how to invest millions of dollars impacts the world and is thus a moral decision. Therefore, if one does not think that investments are a matter of morality, this points to an inner moral failing rather than to an outer nonexistence of moral duties.

In the United States, this moral failing is certainly understandable, if not excusable. The overarching pressures of capitalistic individualism and efficiency have created a society where many view the deity of Profit as the ultimate measure of value. This problem is not new. As William James wrote in a letter to H.G. Wells in 1906, “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”

However, even within the context of these cultural pressures, Rollins has supported di- vestment before. In the 1980s, Rollins was one of the many colleges that chose to divest their endowments from certain companies operating in South Africa as a way to call for the end of apartheid. This sets an important precedent; Rollins has already recognized that basic morality and common decency should indeed play a role in our investment decisions. Hopefully, the Board will remember this precedent when dealing with the moral issues of the present.

Some have asked why our movement focuses specifically on fossil fuel companies in- stead of other corporations. After all, why not call for divestment from weapons manufacturers, or tobacco companies, or from wealthy corporations like Wal-Mart that pay some of their employees poverty wages? The answer is simple: the burning of fossil fuels uniquely threatens the structures of society in a way that no other corporate action does. Although other investment options have their own negative impacts on society, these impacts are not existential threats to the whole of humanity in the same way that climate change is.

Of course, there are many ways to rationalize not divesting from fossil fuels, but most of them aren’t very logical. For example, in the meetings our divestment campaign has had with various groups concerning fossil fuel divestment, some have suggested that the best way for Rollins to battle climate change is to sup- port environmental education and make clean energy investments on campus, such as installing solar panels, rather than divesting from fossil fuels. As philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore observes in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Executive Deception: Four Fallacies About Divestment, and One Big Mistake,” this presumed choice between supporting environmental initiatives on campus versus divestment is a false dichotomy. In order to mitigate the threat of climate change, it’s clear that Rollins should be pursuing both of these actions.

RCSI has also encountered the following objection: because Rollins relies on fossil fuels for electricity, it would be hypocritical to di- vest from them. Moore labels this as a classic ad hominem fallacy. This argument might hold more validity if Rollins had freely chosen fossil fuels from a range of other options, but it did not. As Moore notes, “Over generations, fossil fuels have been built into the structure of our lives, our buildings, our cities.” Our society has developed a forced dependency on fossil fuels, a dependency that must not be allowed to continue—hence, the goal of the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Others have pointed out that Rollins divesting from fossil fuels would have little immediate impact on fossil fuel companies and therefore would not be worth the effort. Moore labels this a straw argument, writing, “Divestment isn’t designed to destroy. It is designed to save, and what is imperiled here is the integrity of the university. A university has an overriding responsibility to advance the well-being of its students, which means that it is flat wrong to profit from industries that will devastate their future.” Additionally—although Moore is correct that a single institution divesting is not meant to destroy fossil fuel companies—as more and more institutions choose to divest, the political and economic impacts that this movement has on these companies will begin to materialize.

If the Board chooses not to divest from fossil fuel companies in any way, then they should at least choose to change the mission statement of this institution. I’m afraid that the phrases “global citizenship,” “responsible leadership,” “social responsibility,” and “environmental stewardship” would all have to be cut. In its place, the Board should insert a phrase such as, “making a profit by any and all means necessary,” or better yet, the following sentence: “We at Rollins value short-term profits over the lives of our current and future graduates and employees.” This may sound extreme, but make no mistake—continued investment in fossil fuel companies presents an extreme threat to all of our futures.

I don’t think the college will have to change its mission, though, because I believe in the Rollins that values global citizenship, responsible leadership, and environmental steward- ship. I have seen this Rollins champion many initiatives that are in line with these values in the past and do not expect that, after some necessary dialogue, this time will be any different.

However, if this time is different, our coalition of 400+ supporters will be prepared to mobilize in order to ensure that every level of the Rollins community is in true alignment with the college mission. We students, as well as our future children and grandchildren, deserve a future not defined by climate chaos.

The Independent is one of many organizations that have voted to endorse the Rollins Coalition for Sustainable Investment. To endorse the movement, vote within your organization or faculty department and email rcsi@rollins.edu to let us know of your support. You can also sign the petition at divestrollins.com. 

 

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