Columbia College students voted last week to support a petition to divest from fossil fuel companies by a margin of 3 to 1. With 36 percent of the student body voting—a higher turnout than in previous special elections—this petition should be taken seriously.
We agree: Columbia’s investment in fossil fuel companies should be investigated. However, that is not to say we agree wholeheartedly with divestment. Divestment is not simply a matter of caring for the planet. The issue is more nuanced than the petition lets on. Fewer funds in fossil fuel companies might result in smaller endowment growth, which could very well reduce funding for environmental research. Columbia’s divestment could succeed in leading other schools to divest—as was the case with divestment from apartheid in South Africa—or it could be ineffectual. Fossil fuel companies are certainly not going away. Divestment might be counterproductive, while diminishing the possibility of working with these companies to ensure more environmentally friendly conditions.
Should Columbia’s endowment be used in such a way, even if divestment were to be effective? Recently, the president of Harvard, Drew Faust, released a statement responding to calls for divestment: “The funds in the endowment have been given to us ... to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy.” This, despite her belief in “addressing climate change.” Faust’s concern is noted, but the fact remains that investment in a company represents a choice, however tacit, to fund that activity.
Before we jump to conclusions about the validity of Faust’s argument, we must also consider the implications of investing based on moral imperatives. Fossil fuel companies are far from the only companies that most students would take issue with. Columbia almost certainly invests in companies that benefit from sweatshop labor, companies that support deplorable conditions for animals, and companies that produce military arms used to kill civilians. These are uncomfortable facts to face.
To allay worries over some of these investments, the University established the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing in 2000. The ACSRI is tasked with reviewing and assessing the status of the Columbia Investment Management Company’s assets. This continuing evaluation generally follows a list of voting guidelines that establish the University’s unofficial position on “environmental, social, and governance issues.” Minutes of the ACSRI detail discussion about the formation of a subcommittee to review investments affecting Sudan and the genocide in Darfur, proposals to coerce Exxon into reporting hydraulic fracking and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and attempts to unearth which banks were financing arms manufacturers.
However, the ACSRI has filed the minutes for only three meetings in the past two years. This is in contrast to thorough posting of minutes between 2006 and 2011.
There is no question that we will continue to be troubled by Columbia’s investment practices, regardless of how fastidiously the assets are invested. But the matter of climate change is paramount and, accordingly, demands our attention and best effort.
Whether or not we purpose to divest from fossil fuels, or even believe that a university endowment should be wielded to advance non-academic aims, we must investigate the issue.
It is important to recognize that as students, we are not privy to the specifics of the University’s endowment, or what effect divesting might have. To that end, we should act through the correct channels to pursue this information. We urge the ACSRI to release its minutes and to scrutinize our current fossil fuel investments. Only then can we start “addressing climate change” at Columbia.