By: Charles Yockey
Since the late 1800s when weather data collection began, NASA has reported a two degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperature, a potentially cataclysmic rise in sea levels, and an alarming contraction of glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic. Several weeks ago, Bill McKibben, world-renowned environmentalist and climate scientist, spoke to the student body about the impacts and inevitable repercussions of climate change. His message was simple: if something is not done, it’s we who will suffer from the consequences of our current actions.
What McKibben did not touch upon was his involvement in the nationwide divestment movement spearheaded by his organization, 350.org. Questions regarding the ethics of capitalism and, in particular, the support of the fossil fuel industry have sparked debate from coast to coast over what obligation institutions of higher learning have to sever their ties with petroleum and coal companies. McKibben’s call to action has inspired student-led movements from his own alma mater, Middlebury College, all the way to Choate, where Christopher Moeckel ’16 began an ongoing discussion. Led today by outgoing seniors Lucas Ferrer ’17, Zoe Reid ’17, and Anselm Kizza-Besigye ’17, the Choate divestment movement has gained considerable momentum; after presenting before the Board of Trustees last fall, it is likely that Choate will attempt to divest completely from fossil fuels in coming years. This, however, begs the larger question regarding the effectiveness of divestment and where it should end.
I had the opportunity to meet with the three divestment leaders and Bill McKibben before he left campus to hear what advice he had for the future of the Choate divestment movement. Fossil Free, a subsidiary of 350, sites divestment as “the opposite of an investment — it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.” Students leading the charge for divestment present a simple and clear argument: if the school denounces the destruction of the environment, they should also denounce profiting from such destruction. This argument, however, proves to be a slippery slope; if the school is to divorce itself from any industry it sees as acting unethical, there is little that students cannot argue as unethical, and consequently, few industries the school would be able to invest in. When faced with this question, McKibben replied that in most circumstances, companies acting in immoral ways could be confronted by shareholders and consumers directly, though not the fossil fuel industry. For instance, if Apple does not pay its workers a living wage, a letter writing campaign or simple boycott could change the way the entire company does business. Flaws within the corporation’s internal business plans can be straightened out and remedied. However, with fossil fuel enterprises, McKibben argued, “there is not a problem in the business plan, the business plan is the problem.” This is because sizable firms such as Shell and Exxon benefit directly from the burning and consumption of carbon products. There is no other industry quite like it; divesting from a company citing exploitation of labor or lack of a working wage is not necessarily effective nor encouraged. However, according to McKibben, divesting from fossil fuels is necessary because the industry itself is at fault.
As for Choate, McKibben and school leaders advocating for the policy remain highly optimistic. McKibben stated that at Choate, the majority of the work towards divestment had been completed — a solid foundation had been laid, student support is evident, and the administration continues to encourage the effort. Obstacles to complete divestment remain high, however. The endowment is not invested in assets controlled by the school outright, but in funds controlled by external managers oftentimes with a required long-term commitment. This vehicle of investment is common among large institutions such as pension funds and schools. It may take Choate many years to filter out all remnants of the fossil fuel lobby from the endowment, and in some cases it may be nearly impossible without a full restructuring of how the endowment is invested. As of right now, the largest obstacle to divestment from the fossil fuel industry is not the administration or board, but feasibility of severance given what types of financial instruments Choate holds.
The school is not explicitly a firm, think tank, nor engine for social change. Choate is an institution that seeks to educate the community for a better tomorrow. While the administration, student body, and Board of Trustees may value and have a commitment to sustainability, critical thinking, and comprehension, the school’s primary value remains the advancement of those it was created to enlighten: the students. If the school can better serve the student body with a larger sum of money, it should opt to continue support of the industry through the endowment. Indeed, the cost to fossil fuel companies of losing Choate as an investor may be far less than the cost to Choate of ending investment in a lucrative industry.
The school administration, key think tanks, environmental action groups, and peer institutions have been relentlessly pouring over the facts and seem to think divestment is a good idea. If the school does decide to go through with divestment, their decision must be the right one. However, it is necessary that this decision is truly premised on logic, clear thinking, and a dedication to the student body and not muddied by an overture of popular sentiment or the voices of highly vocal minorities.