Curtis: On the Right Side of History

by John Curtis | 3/7/16 7:00pm

I just divested myself of any stock I owned in companies which produce or burn fossil fuels. I thought it might be useful to share with the Dartmouth community how I came to that decision. You would think that an ’81 who bought his first position not long after graduating, then went to Harvard Business School and forged a business career would never ditch the attractive yields in the oil and energy sectors. It has a lot to do with becoming a the parent of a ’14 and thinking ahead to the day when I could become a grandparent of a ’34.

I once heard David Attenborough, an eminent BBC naturalist whose soft, measured voice is associated with the natural world, say, “I never want my grandchildren to say, ‘but grandpapa you knew…’” He was speaking in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at a climate change event.

My own journey started in Dartmouth Hall on the right side of the lecture hall in the basement about five rows back. I was listening to a lecture by Donella Meadows of “The Limits to Growth” (1972) fame. Donella Meadows and her husband Dennis Meadows’ insights into the carrying capacity of the planet were maligned at the time, but today they seem pressing. What I remember more was my response, not intellectual or academic, but emotional. I heard something compelling, something that stirred me as a student on the threshold of the world. Many years later I was a guest at the consulting firm the Meadows started in White River Junction when I was a senior partner at one of the world’s largest environmental engineering firms. I had launched their climate change division. I had travelled the world for 30 years and ended up where I began: in the Upper Valley listening to the Meadows’ point of view.

I talked with many of the world’s largest mining and energy companies about climate change in that role. I presented to a large internal executive audience at what may be the world’s dirtiest utility company, Eskom in South Africa. It was all science and impacts and carbon prices and protecting assets from weather and water. We looked at the impacts of carbon dioxide parts per million in the atmosphere of 350. Activist and Vermonter, Bill McKibben, launched a group called to draw attention to “safe” CO2 levels. But we just surpassed 400 PPM. The Grantham Institute­- Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London has one message from their professors’ research: climate change is accelerating.

You will understand that I was a proud ’81 when my daughter Morgan Curtis ’14 won the Sustainability Award as a Dartmouth student for her contribution to environmental awareness on campus. You probably would not be surprised that she is focused on the front end of climate action and was active with Divest Dartmouth as a student. She is quick to point out that Dartmouth and other academic institutions contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa by divesting from firms in their endowment funds with business in South Africa. But sometimes change starts closer to home— with Dad.

I was very interested in understanding Harvard Heat Week, an event to raise climate action and divestment issues in their community that my daughter attended in April 2015. Watching the video coverage from the New England church in Cambridge, the same church where my wife and I met with a minister before getting married, I had the same emotional response I had in Dartmouth Hall all those years ago. The message was basic: the climate is changing, we have to change for the sake of future generations. No more science and impacts and assets, rather a social movement, a new paradigm. I wrote to my alumni councillor and suggested that we did not want to be beaten by Harvard at anything whether that be in football, innovation or in taking an ethical stance.

I felt a responsibility, a duty to be on the right side of this issue. I called my broker the next day and triggered the sell orders to become fossil free. I also sent my 2015 Dartmouth donation to the Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund. Dartmouth will get my donation if the endowment is out of fossil fuel stocks by the end of 2017 — the date after which the International Energy Agency has said we can have no new fossil fuel infrastructure if we wish to stay under two degrees celsius of warming. For my sake, and for my ’14, and for the well-being of a potential ’34 I hope Dartmouth gets that donation. At least I can tell the ’34’s that I will know that I divested.

Correction appended (March 8, 2016):

This columnoriginally stated that Curtis's daughter attended Harvard Heat Week in 2014, and that Curtis sent his 2014 Dartmouth donation toMulti-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund. In fact, she attended in 2015, and the donation was made in 2015.