EVANS: Doing better than divestment

The University community should couple economic divestment with political action to achieve meaningful change in energy policy

I was excited to see an article in The Cavalier Daily draw attention to socially and environmentally responsible investment. “Do your part” rightfully argues that students should encourage their universities to cut back on fossil fuel consumption, an energy reliance that must end if greenhouse gas emissions are to be significantly reduced. However, fossil fuel divestment — i.e. the removal of University assets from dirty industries like coal, oil, and gas — would not meet this objective. Simply put, the University’s investment portfolio is independent of its energy policy.

Divestment does not influence utilities, and has little if any economic impact on the broader energy market. Instead, it is a political action that aims to expose the injustices of an industry whose stronghold on energy regulation prevents social conscience from governing market supply, sending us spiraling ever deeper into our climate crisis. The power of divestment as a political — rather than economic — tool will not be realized until student campaigners acknowledge this truth.

Of the 300 plus student campaigns nationwide, only a handful have managed to pass divestment resolutions through their administrations. Poor economic arguments deter Boards of Trustees, who repeatedly argue that divestment is meaningless because fossil fuels abound; they feed us, entertain us, and power us. To attack fossil fuels is to attack our global economy, and ultimately ourselves. But by acknowledging this reality, campaigners can generate more compelling incentives for their universities to speak out against fossil fuels. One major incentive shifts our focus beyond our seemingly inalterable energy economy, to the corrupt few who ultimately dictate this reality.

The real issue is this: the fossil fuel market is impenetrable because A) its support structure rests on the shoulders of the ultra-wealthy, i.e. money managers, corporate executives, and big-league lobbyists who exist to ensure an indelible demand, and therefore, B) its economy pervades the modern world. The crucial point here is that B follows A. If we fail to recognize that the self-interest of a few is trumping the greater interests of society, then we will falsely accuse ourselves and continue wallowing in our oilwell of lame excuses.

A Yale study showed that 59 percent of Americans support eliminating all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and 72 percent strongly support re-investment in renewable energy — an extremely high approval rating. While swarms of consumers realize that dirty energy must be replaced with clean-tech solutions, a few who think otherwise have the power to prevent that transition. The oil elite — most notably Charles and David Koch — make sure any stock removed is immediately restored, that government pumps tens of billions into their industry each year, and that the climate science threatening their fossil-based future is undermined.

Our demand is changing, but supply isn’t listening. The physical structures supporting fossil fuel production will remain operative as long as this lobby remains the strongest contingent in Washington. Three of every four oil lobbyists once worked for federal government. As long as the grid is dictated by the fossil fuel lobby, the unsustainable extraction of petroleum, coal and natural gas will continue — as will climate change.

Ultimately, government allows pipelines and refineries to exist. These industrial behemoths are far more difficult to erase than a handful of dirty assets. Therefore, the degree of initial divestiture matters less than the message which must be communicated. The greater objective is to teach society that our values are being overshadowed by the self-interest of our politicians. Energy supply must reflect true demand, because future climate stability hinges on a clean energy economy now. If we allow our demand to remain unanswered, we will eventually pay the price.

Our universities can be moral leaders in this battle. A powerful statement from the academic community would encourage the public to engage with representatives so we might achieve meaningful, action-oriented climate discussion. Reputable universities like ours have huge leverage in society because they are the incubators (and Alma Maters) of many of our public representatives and national leaders. Why not use this influence to steer public discourse?

Harvard University’s President Faust argues, “the endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” I disagree. Our investments should align with the values of our collective intellectual community. Universities exist to foster the very knowledge that impels both social and political progress, and I imagine the values of our universities do not align with those of an industry that spends millions undermining that effort through think-tanks, false advertising and anti-science campaigns. Factor in the industry’s egregious history of human rights violations and suddenly there seems little reason not to divest.

Moral imperatives leave no room for ambivalence. I respond directly to last week’s article with the conviction it lacks: it would be prudent for us to follow Stanford’s lead and remove all public assets from coal mining. Then, through cooperation among our Board of Visitors, students, faculty, and staff, we can explore means for further divestment from fossil fuels and subsequent re-investment in renewables (on and off Grounds) that would strengthen the financial returns crucial to the stability of our institution.

In the end, we must not let our collective values be crushed by a small cohort of self-interested political actors. The energy market should reflect the values of society because it is ultimately society that will have to pay.

Will Evans is a third year in the College and a Political and Social Thought major. He is also the president of O Records.

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