The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) said two days ago that the proposal of Barnard Columbia Divest (BCD) for divestment from fossil fuels “did not meet the criteria for divestment.” According to their response (which can be read in full here), ACSRI will not recommend BCD’s divestment proposal because “the merits of the case are not clearly on one side, nor are [they] sure that Columbia’s divestment would send a signal more powerful than engagement [with fossil fuel companies]. Below is the response of BCD to the ACSRI’s decision:
“We cannot ban the burning of fossil fuels overnight. Triggering the change will likely take changes in government policy, in private investment priorities, and the civic engagement of a globalized society,” wrote the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) as they declined to trigger the change by being leaders in a national movement to divest university endowments from the fossil fuel industry.
The flawed and self-contradictory document that the ACSRI published on Wednesday is reflective of the nature of the committee itself and its treatment of the fossil fuel divestment proposal that Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (BCD) first brought to them in November 2013. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of individual members, the structure of the ACSRI prevents it from responding with the urgency this situation requires.
I. The clock is ticking
International climate agreements designate 2ºC as the ‘safe’ upper threshold of warming the world would be able to withstand. Fossil fuel companies have and plan to burn five times as much carbon as would get us to the limit, for the purpose of continuing to be the most profitable industry in history. The next major climate summit is happening in Paris in December 2015, but the UN process has yet to be successful in lowering global GHG emissions. A large section of the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed this week. According to the International Energy Agency, we will spend our ‘carbon budget’ within sixteen years. Time is running out.
II. The legitimacy of the ACSRI
Yet, in the seven months since November, the ACSRI has demonstrated that they believe climate change and climate justice are not urgent issues for the University. After all, they repeatedly asked us not to hold them to their commitment of taking a vote on divestment on Tuesday and making their results public – because they had not actually taken the time to understand the issue. Despite promises of transparency and inclusion since November, they have consistently cancelled meetings with us, kept internal meetings secret, refused to inform us on their research progress, and demonstrated that communication among ACSRI members themselves is sorely lacking. We were abruptly told about their vote two weeks in advance, when we had simply wanted to meet to create a constructive timeline together of how we could expand research on divestment. More significantly, they have dismissed students as equal partners in this important dialogue. In one example, when we hosted a panel on fossil fuel divestment together, we were told that it would not be appropriate to have a student on the panel because we are not “experts.” Forget that our members work at cleantech hedge funds and intern at responsible endowment nonprofits – it is technocratic “experts” who have brought us to a point of planetary crisis at the expense of regular people who have been giving voice to the destruction they have witnessed for decades. And rarely does expert status come without strings attached. The ACSRI has repeatedly told us that the Earth Institute needs to be involved in the divestment conversation. While we have been and plan to continue engaging with the Earth Institute, it also counts Eni S.p.A. among its “Corporate Circle” sponsors. Of course, Eni S.p.A. is one of the top oil and gas companies on the Carbon Tracker 200, a list of the fossil fuel companies with the most reserves that we were asking Columbia to divest from.
III. A flawed report
In the text the ACSRI published, there are several convenient omissions. First, in considering institutional consensus within Columbia, they did not include the list we submitted of faculty memberswho support fossil fuel divestment – now numbering sixty-two – a week before the report was released. Those signatures were gathered in less than a week’s time. In claiming that the 73.7% of Columbia College students who voted for fossil fuel divestment in the fall is not an indication of enough support, they dismiss at least 1,166 people. How many thousands of students equate to the voice of one “expert?” If those thousands of people in the middle of Low Plaza, demanding why their voices do not count, would the ACSRI be able to ignore them? Clearly, the fact that Columbia “plans to…work toward 100% usage of recycled graduation gowns” as part of its sustainability efforts speaks much louder. The ACSRI’s focus on Columbia’s sustainability efforts in the report is distracting but not actually apt; unlike other schools, Columbia does not have a University-wide sustainability plan. Next, in considering consensus among educational institutions, they included Stanford divesting from coal, but they did not include the fact that Pitzer divested their $125 million endowment from fossil fuels and established a comprehensive sustainable investing plan in April. Their commitment to chartering “a standing subcommittee on fossil fuel” is phrased as a new development, but they told us that in November, our presentation was the kick-off to a “fossil fuel divestment subcommittee.” The results of seven months’ work leave much to be desired.
IV. Our investments in fossil fuels
If we call these and other factual omissions accidents, there is no way to do the same for their minimization of the amount of money that Columbia has invested in the fossil fuel industry. The document addresses directly-owned stocks, which represent approximately ten percent or $800 million of our $8 billion endowment. Much of the other ninety percent is invested in commingled or mutual funds, which are likely invested in fossil fuel companies. Social responsibility fund managers have told us that the average endowment has an investment of 4-5% in the fossil fuel industry – Barnard said that their endowment has 3.6% invested in fossil fuels at a public town hall. Four percent of Columbia’s $8 billion is $320 million. The ACSRI did not accurately report info about the direct holdings: they claim that there are no companies from the Carbon Tracker 200 on the list, because stocks of Soco International were sold last year. While we applaud divestiture from a company that is planning to drill for oil in the Congo’s Virunga National Park, the list of direct holdings that the ACSRI gave us also contains Inner Mongolia Yitai, one of the top coal companies on the Carbon Tracker 200 list. Let us be clear: just because the only transparent part of Columbia’s endowment is free of significant investments in fossil fuels does not mean the same for the rest of the $8 billion. In fact, that would be a pretty smart administrative strategy to keep socially controversial investments out of the directly-managed portfolio. We will be publishing an annotated version of the ACSRI’s report soon for further discussion.
V. They still don’t understand divestment
More broadly, there are three major indicators that the ACSRI has not understood the purpose of divestment as a tactic to revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry: a) their argument that divestment would be hypocritical due to our society’s current reliance on fossil fuels, b) their leanings towards shareholder activism, and c) their desire for a “best in class” rating of fossil fuel companies.
Yes, we currently rely on fossil fuels, but it is not so much a matter of consumer demand as lack of choice. The fossil fuel industry gets $59 in subsidies for each $1 it spends lobbying Congress–a 5800% return on investment. While we should all do what we can to be environmentally conscious, renewable energy has had to navigate an uneven playing field. We have the technology and solutions to address climate change, but the political clout of Big Carbon has perpetuated inertia.
Shareholder activism, including writing resolutions to advocate for a change in practice, is used well when a company’s business plan needs reform; for example, it has been used effectively to demand better labor practices from fast-food companies. However, there is no problem that can be fixed within the fossil fuel industry’s business plan; the problem is the business plan. Years of shareholder activism by various organizations have been ineffective in turning fossil fuel companies to exploring renewables. For example, Big Oil has already divested–from alternative energy. For any fossil fuel company, their investments into alternative energy have never broken the single-digit percentages, and ExxonMobil spent $188 million on alternative energy between 2002 and 2013. Their profits were $45 billion in 2012 alone.
Finally, that is the same reason why we should not wait to classify fossil fuel companies into a list of best and worst. Those categorizations would likely be by factors like number of recorded human rights abuses, but if the ACSRI’s purpose is truly to “advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues” that endeavor becomes self-evidently ridiculous. There is little room to judge ‘better’ and ‘worse’ when every single fossil fuel extraction company is counting on an absence of anti-extraction legislation that would protect the planet and its inhabitants.
VI. The future of the fossil fuel divestment campaign
We are disappointed but not discouraged by the ACSRI’s decision. For the reasons we have put forth, we have realized that the committee has hitherto not been a legitimate partner in exploring the question of divestment, but rather a PR-friendly institutional barrier between students and the financial decision-making power that lies with the Board of Trustees and the Trustees Subcommittee on Shareholder Responsibility (TSSR).
As such, we are calling for a meeting with the Trustees in the fall.
Alongside having discussions with the members of the Board, we promise to commit ourselves most to turning to Columbia community members, especially our fellow students. In the coming weeks, months, and years, we will together hold our university accountable to our principles and a healthy, safe future for all.
We will do our best to make sure fossil fuel divestment occurs as expediently as possible, so that it can serve as an effective catalyst in the movement for climate justice. After all, time is running out. We only have one world. Divest now.