Yona: Do The Right Thing

by Leehi Yona | 9/12/16 11:28pm

What does it mean to do the right thing?

The decisions Dartmouth students and alumni make reverberate far beyond Hanover.

Climate change is an issue where Dartmouth can lead. Dartmouth is already leading in climate research – research that College President Phil Hanlon witnessed when he visited the Arctic in August. But, what about climate solutions?

Global warming is the greatest issue of our generation, and, without a doubt, the single most pressing issue affecting future generations of Dartmouth students. Where is Dartmouth’s leadership in this challenge?

In the 1980s, Dartmouth became the first Ivy League institution to divest from companies profiting from South African Apartheid. At the time, nearly a quarter of the endowment was invested in these companies. Trustees said divestment had “great symbolic meaning”, which motivated their decision. Dartmouth was on the right side of history then; what about now?

On Monday, Dartmouth Alumni for Climate Action delivered a letter to Hanlon and the Board of Trustees in support of fossil fuel divestment. With over 500 signatories spanning 57 class years, the letter is one of the largest alumni letters published. It requested, among other demands, a decision on divestment by spring 2017.

Student organizers of Divest Dartmouth – a campaign to disinvest the College’s endowment from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies – have worked on this campaign since 2012. Many fellow 16’s helped found this campaign as freshmen. Since then, thousands of Dartmouth community members joined us – yet, we graduated this spring without ever meeting on record with neither the Board of Trustees nor with Hanlon.

In May, a report commissioned by Hanlon objectively weighing the pros and cons of divestment was released, over two years behind schedule. The report, written by Mark Borsuk, a Thayer School of Engineering professor, found that by no metric – financial, moral or reputational – could refusing to divest be a rational decision.

All this time, Divest Dartmouth diligently went through all administrative channels in order to request a conversation with the Trustees. Our online petition has garnered over 2,500 signatures. In April of this year, we organized the Big Green Rally, which had over 115 co-sponsors and nearly 500 attendees – the largest gathering of its kind in Dartmouth history.

Finally, four years into our campaign, we were granted a meeting with two Trustees: Board Chair Bill Helman and Investment Chair Richard Kimball. We will be meeting with them at 7a.m. this Thursday, our first such conversation that will be on record. We hope that this conversation can begin in earnest during this meeting, and to meet with the full Board at their next meeting, so that this dialogue may continue. If we remain invested in these companies, we will be making a statement about where our values lie.

What does it mean to do the right thing?

After the campaign to divest from Apartheid in South Africa began at Dartmouth in the 1970s, it became clear that it was no longer morally acceptable to for the College to fund Apartheid. I believe that the same will be said of investing in climate change: the impacts of human-caused global warming are here. The United States is grappling with its own climate change refugees – from Native American communities in Louisiana to Inupiaq communities in Alaska. Every month in 2016 has been the hottest on record, shattering the records set in 2015. Our oceans are warming, reaching record temperatures. We are in a crisis.

Yet, in the face of this crisis, the fossil fuel industry has only acted in bad faith. Many of these companies knew about climate change since at least 1977. But, rather than shift their business practices, companies launched a disinformation campaign, deliberately misleading the public. The attorneys general of many states, including New York and Massachusetts, are now investigating the role of Exxon Mobil in this deception.

These facts terrify and anger me. But as I think about the campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa, I have faith in our ability to do what is right.

Divesting from fossil fuels alone will not solve climate change, much like divesting from companies in South Africa did not end Apartheid. Yet, as was the case with Apartheid, divesting from fossil fuels creates dialogue around the morality of investing in unethical companies. When Dartmouth divests­- and it will, the question is when- our community will be making a statement about where we stand on this urgent moral issue.

What will it take for Dartmouth to do the right thing?

<i> Leehi Yona ’16 is one of the founders of Divest Dartmouth and is a member of Dartmouth Alumni for Climate Action.</i>