Chun: Divest from Skepticism

by Steven Chun | 5/2/16 5:30pm

To put it bluntly, I thought Divest Dartmouth was pointless. I strongly believe that climate change should be our foremost concern, but it seemed that Divest Dartmouth didn’t have any concrete goals, and I didn’t buy into the idea that “morally bankrupting” energy companies counted as doing anything productive. I’ve always been unenthusiastic about activism that doesn’t propose solutions or set goals. T-shirts and megaphones do not social change make. But I missed something in this analysis. There is a strategy to Divest Dartmouth, one that is less easily assigned a dollar value or measured in parts per million: making colleges divest is a way to tap into their symbolism and influence. In my view, divestment isn’t about affecting fossil fuel-burning companies’ finances — it’s about renowned institutions sending a message of urgency.

The financial impact of divestment is hard to determine. It is abundantly clear that it will in no way significantly affect the companies that Dartmouth divests from. Initially, I was skeptical of the trade-off between the well being of the College and making a symbolic stand through divestment. I figured that spending money gained from fossil fuels on research and empowering students who could then make a real impact on climate change would be a far better use of our endowment. The cost to the College of divesting seemed too great. However, it’s hard to say that divestment would significantly harm the College. An open letter from 61 Dartmouth alumni notes that fossil fuels make up a relatively small portion of Dartmouth’s endowment and could be reinvested with few adverse effects. It may be sub-optimal, but it is far from disastrous. Beyond that, the College has divested before: in 1989, the College sold off $11.5 million dollars of investments in companies with dealings in South Africa to protest apartheid. It seems the College has the ability, if not the will, to use their endowment to address critical issues.

What makes divestment powerful is not the financial repercussions but rather the expansion of the conversation due to the prestigious role of the American college. The university system has historically been at the forefront of progress. Countless Nobel prize winners, renowned scientists and business leaders have emerged from this system, giving American colleges more and more clout. With that history in mind, it’s easy to imagine the message that divestment can send. With student movements at institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Notre Dame, Stanford University, Amherst College, Georgetown University, the University of Oregon and Dartmouth, just to mention a few, the impact of widespread divestment would be massive — not in financial terms, but in forcing discussion. The scientific literature — much of which has come from colleges themselves — has made the dangers of climate change incredibly clear, but what’s preventing action is a sense of widespread urgency. Divestment is not just a minor financial transaction that barely affects fossil fuel companies — it is a plea for urgency. Some of the country’s most respected institutions divesting indicates that apathy is far too great a danger.

So this non-believer has changed his mind. At this point, any effort to address climate change is worthwhile. While the conversation is still framed in terms of degrees Celsius, it won’t be too long before it is framed in lives lost and billions of dollars of economic and environmental damage.

As Divest Dartmouth evolves, however, I see ways of increasing its efficacy. The first is establishing more concrete goals. Technical details like timelines for divestment and standards for which companies should be targeted could make the movement more palatable for the administration and trustees. In addition, Divest Dartmouth cannot paint energy companies with the wide brush of “fossil fuel.” For example, I would hesitate to divest from General Electric, because while it’s certainly a player in the oil and gas industry, it’s also the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the United States. Furthermore, the transition to renewable fuels will be a long one. To that point, we cannot consider all fuels the same. Natural gas is far cleaner than coal, which has become the focal point of many divest movements as it’s one of the dirtiest fuels in use. This allows us to focus on divesting from the worst polluters while remaining engaged with companies that are actively pursuing renewable fuels.

About a month ago, I was considering writing this column from the other side of the divestment debate. I was prepared to denounce the Divest movement as inconsequential and irresponsible for drawing attention away from serious efforts to address climate change. I have been through every argument against Divest, and, in the course of my thought process, each one has failed to hold water. People who think like me often have trouble finding the importance in movements without measurable effects. But it’s foolish — practically irresponsible — for anyone who recognizes the danger of climate change to disregard Divest Dartmouth.