As academics, we are in the privileged position to understand the risks posed by climate change -- but we have an even greater moral responsibility to be the first to act. At this moment in history it is neither tenable nor ethical for universities to remain invested in fossil fuels, to profit from an industry that is threatening the very future of their students. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath to our children a sustainable planet worth living on, immediate and transformative actions by governments, businesses, institutions and individuals must occur.
This was the argument presented to the Salem State University Board of Trustees on Sept. 16 by two groups representing more than 70 faculty and 600 students. The groups called for Salem State to join 30 U.S. institutes of higher education and more than 400 institutions and organizations worldwide including Stanford University, the World Council of Churches, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the British Medical Association in the movement to divest from fossil fuels. Fourteen Massachusetts towns and cities have also passed resolutions supporting divestment, along with recent support from the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Boston Teachers Union.
The move follows mounting evidence of the magnitude of ongoing and future threats of climate change, including: extreme weather events, sea level rise, increased frequency of severity of droughts, floods and wildfires, global food insecurity, and a projected 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050. The Pentagon, not known as a liberal institution, identified “climate change as a major risk to national security,” while international medical organizations declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
The case for divestment is straightforward. Firstly, the burning of fossil fuels by industrial society is the major cause of currently observed and predicted climate change. Eighty percent of currently listed fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, unburnable, as stranded assets, to prevent uncontrollable warming. We have just until 2017 to halt construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, if we are to meet the critical 2 degrees Celsius target as mandated by the Copenhagen Accord.
Despite this, fossil fuel companies plan to burn five times more carbon than is safe. Not one fossil fuel company has committed to stopping fossil fuel exploration and limiting extraction to its proportional share of the carbon budget. They instead are spending more than half a trillion dollars annually seeking new reserves.
Secondly, fossil fuel interest groups have promoted and orchestrated anti-science disinformation campaigns, spending $900 million a year on the climate change counter movement, attacking individual scientists, opposing climate legislation and undermining public confidence in science. By investing in fossil fuels, Salem State is undermining the integrity of science and is forfeiting its duty and moral responsibility as an institution of learning. Continued investment in fossil fuels perpetuates the industry’s stranglehold on our government and their obstruction of the transition to a clean energy future.
No, divestment alone will not solve climate change, but divestment addresses the biggest obstacle to mitigating climate change — that is, the lack of political will. Divestment is a tactic that aims to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry, undermine its ability to influence policy, and trigger a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels. Divestment also raises awareness of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on developing nations, marginalized communities and people of color, and the future generations, who bear the least historical responsibility for its cause. Previous divestment campaigns, from apartheid to tobacco, successfully lobbied for restrictive legislation affecting stigmatized firms.
Divestment is compatible with a sound portfolio. In fact, investing in fossil fuels is counter to the schools fiduciary duty. Fossil fuels are in structural decline — i.e. the industry models are not sustainable. Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, has lost more than 85 percent of its value in the last 12 months. California’s public pension funds incurred a massive loss of $5 billion in the last year alone from their holdings fossil fuel companies, while the Massachusetts public pension fund lost more than a half a billion dollars.
Fiduciary duty is also tied to intergenerational equity. Salem State must do its part to ensure our children’s lives are not defined by climate chaos. Sustainability is one of the three guiding principles of SSU’s 2013-2016 Strategic Plan. The plan states, “We take the long view. We understand that the decisions we make today will have repercussions for the generations that follow.” Divestment not only provides us with an opportunity to adhere to our mission statement, it also sends a signal to our students that political and social activism is not only legitimate, but also critical in addressing the climate crisis.
Universities have a moral responsibility to show leadership for our students and the North Shore in a time of unprecedented transition. Some argue that universities should stay out of politics – but to invest in fossil fuels, and decline responsibility for climate action, is itself a political act. If universities do not play a leading role in guiding society through the transition to a sustainable human existence, who will?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, apartheid campaigner and advocate for divestment stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. In 50 years from now people will look back on our time with disbelief for the lack of action on a clear and present danger. Salem State has the opportunity to be on the right side of history, to align our values with our mission, and not passively wait for others.
Dr. Noel Healy is founder of SSU Faculty For Divestment and assistant professor of geography at Salem State University.