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This paper provides a critical overview and analysis of the student-led fossil fuel divestment (FFD) movement and its impact on sustainability discourse and actions within US higher education. Analysing higher education institutes’ (HEIs) divestment press releases and news reports shows how institutional alignment with cultures of sustainability and social justice efforts played key roles in HEIs’ decisions to divest from fossil fuels. Key stated reasons for rejection were: minimal or unknown impact of divestment, risk to the endowment, and fiduciary duty. Participant observation and interviews with protagonists reveal the intricate power structures and vested business interests that influence boardroom divestment decision-making. While some HEIs embrace transformative climate actions, we contend that higher education largely embraces a business-as-usual sustainability framework characterised by a reformist green-economy discourse and a reluctance to move beyond businessinterest responses to climate politics. Nonetheless, the FFD movement is pushing HEIs to move from compliance-oriented sustainability behaviour towards a more proactive and highly politicised focus on HEIs’ stance in the modern fossil fuel economy. We offer conceptual approaches and practical directions for reorienting sustainability within HEIs to prioritise the intergenerational equity of its students and recognise climate change as a social justice issue. Fully integrating sustainability into the core business of HEIs requires leadership to address fundamental moral questions of both equity and responsibility for endowment investments. We contend that HEIs must re-evaluate their role in averting catastrophic climate change, and extend their influence in catalysing public climate discourse and actions through a broader range of external channels, approaches, and actors.
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Local Environment
The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability
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Fossil fuel divestment: implications for the future
of sustainability discourse and action within
higher education
Noel Healy & Jessica Debski
To cite this article: Noel Healy & Jessica Debski (2016): Fossil fuel divestment: implications for
the future of sustainability discourse and action within higher education, Local Environment,
DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2016.1256382
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2016.1256382
Published online: 07 Dec 2016.
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Fossil fuel divestment: implications for the future of sustainability
discourse and action within higher education
Noel Healy and Jessica Debski
Department of Geography, Salem State University, Salem, MA, USA
ABSTRACT
This paper provides a critical overview and analysis of the student-led fossil
fuel divestment (FFD) movement and its impact on sustainability discourse
and actions within US higher education. Analysing higher education
institutes(HEIs) divestment press releases and news reports shows how
institutional alignment with cultures of sustainability and social justice
efforts played key roles in HEIsdecisions to divest from fossil fuels. Key
stated reasons for rejection were: minimal or unknown impact of
divestment, risk to the endowment, and fiduciary duty. Participant
observation and interviews with protagonists reveal the intricate power
structures and vested business interests that influence boardroom
divestment decision-making. While some HEIs embrace transformative
climate actions, we contend that higher education largely embraces a
business-as-usual sustainability framework characterised by a reformist
green-economy discourse and a reluctance to move beyond business-
interest responses to climate politics. Nonetheless, the FFD movement is
pushing HEIs to move from compliance-oriented sustainability behaviour
towards a more proactive and highly politicised focus on HEIsstance in
the modern fossil fuel economy. We offer conceptual approaches and
practical directions for reorienting sustainability within HEIs to prioritise
the intergenerational equity of its students and recognise climate
change as a social justice issue. Fully integrating sustainability into the
core business of HEIs requires leadership to address fundamental moral
questions of both equity and responsibility for endowment investments.
We contend that HEIs must re-evaluate their role in averting
catastrophic climate change, and extend their influence in catalysing
public climate discourse and actions through a broader range of
external channels, approaches, and actors.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 5 April 2016
Accepted 18 October 2016
KEYWORDS
Higher education; climate
change; fossil fuel
divestment; sustainability;
justice and ethics
Introduction
Climate change is a defining issue of our time and an existential threat to our life and development,
according to the United Nations (Ki-Moon 2014). If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and
bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, immediate and transformative actions by govern-
ments, businesses, institutions, and individuals must occur (Anderson and Bows 2010, Cai et al.
2016, Clark et al.2016). Higher education institutes (HEIs) have unique opportunities to address
the climate challenge and catalyse societal transition towards sustainability (Cortese 2003, Trencher
et al.2014a). This paper raises questions and opportunities for how to think differently about sustain-
ability in higher education and the role of HEIs in averting a climate crisis. Because sustainability chal-
lenges current paradigms, structures, and predominant practices in higher education, universities are
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Noel Healy nhealy@salemstate.edu
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT, 2016
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2016.1256382
struggling to contribute meaningfully to it (Calder and Clugston 2003, Su and Chang 2010, Tilbury
2011, Jones 2012, Jones 2015a). The mission of universities to educate future leaders carries an
onus to equip graduates to tackle the interconnected challenges of climate change, global inequality,
and social justice (Rappaport et al.2007, Lotz-Sisitka et al.2015).
Universities have frequently been regarded as key institutions in processes of social change and
development (Brennan et al.2004). Nonetheless, much of the academic research on sustainability has
centred on how HEIs can change internally (Barlett and Chase 2004, Rappaport et al.2007, Svanström
et al.2008, Ferrer-Balas et al.2009, Blewitt and Cullingford 2013) rather than how they can facilitate
external change (Stephens et al.2008, Stephens and Graham 2010, Sedlacek 2013, Trencher et al.
2014a). While students have been engaged in initiatives targeting personal and campus energy effi-
ciency (carbon footprints), including: Take Back the Tapcampaigns to eliminate plastic water
bottles on campus, dorm energy challenges, and educational programmes (Mikhailovich and Fitzger-
ald 2014, Wachholz et al.2014), collective political student action on climate change is more recent
(Grady-Benson and Sarathy 2016).
Fossil fuel divestment (FFD) encourages collective action on a broader scale through a coordinated
national movement targeting the fossil fuel industry. Students rallied around the FFD movement for
several reasons, including: the international communitys failure to implement the transformative
action required for radical and immediate emission reduction (Chatterton et al.2013); frustration
with political gridlock on comprehensive US climate policy (McKibben 2012); the need for urgent sys-
tematic change (Anderson and Bows 2010); and growing awareness of the social consequences of
fossil fuel extraction (Watts 2005). Moreover, the revelation that just 90 companies contributed to
63% of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted globally between 1751 and 2010 (Starr 2016) added
to the recognition of the fossil fuel industry as a socio-environmental enemy (Ringeling 2015).
FFD aims to remove the social licence by which fossil fuel companies operate through reputational
damage and stigmatisation. In a rapidly changing energy market and with increasing climate change
awareness at the institutional level, FFD has the capacity to catalyze public discourse and facilitate a
vast web of influence that could bring a shift in attitudes toward climate change and the fossil fuel
industry(Ayling and Gunningham 2015, p. 11). This paper illustrates how the movement is pushing
HEIs to reconsider their focus on incremental internal sustainability actions. Instead, it seeks to extend
their influence by refocusing public climate discourse on the systematic and urgent political, social,
and economic changes required to rapidly decarbonise our global energy systems. Given the move-
ments relatively recent origin, FFD has scarcely been mentioned in higher education and environ-
mental policy literature. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is threefold:
(1) To provide a critical overview and analysis of the FFD movement within US higher education;
(2) To analyse FFDs impact on sustainability discourse and actions within higher education, particu-
larly the role of HEIs in averting catastrophic climate change;
(3) To offer conceptual approaches and practical directions for re-orienting sustainability towards an
emergent paradigm of climate justice.
To address these aims, we critically explore the FFD movement to unpack some of the often
unspoken political structures and power imbalances inherent in sustainability discourse and
actions. Interviews with students and faculty in the FFD movement reveal how the push for divest-
ment is rapidly changing sustainability efforts from compliance-oriented sustainability behaviour
towards a more proactive and highly politicised focus on the stance of universities in the modern
fossil fuel economy (Bratman et al.2016). The movement is shifting the conventional framing of
climate change from a technocratic environmental issueto one elevating the social justice, interge-
nerational justice, and health impacts of climate change. This reframing of the climate narrative draws
attention to the shortcomings of HEIs business-as-usual sustainability framework, which has been
characterised by a reformist green-economy discourse. The movement for divestment is attempting
to reorient sustainability discourse and actions from a reform/transition sustainability approach
2N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
towards one of radical transformations. It is pushing HEIs to move to a deeper engagement with
global climate justice concerns and the underlying political economy that is influencing (and
obstructing) the transition to a low-carbon world.
Sustainability within higher education
Since the Brundtland Commissions report, Our Common Future (United Nations 1987), the concept of
sustainable development has grown in relevance and importance within higher education as evi-
denced by the publication and adoption of national and international declarations, charters, and part-
nerships on sustainability notably, the Talloires Declaration of 1990, Agenda 21 of 1992, Kyoto
Declaration of 1993, Copernicus University Charter of 1994, Global Higher Education for Sustainable
Development Partnership of 2000, and Rio + 20 Higher Education Sustainable Education Initiative (for
detailed summaries, see Wright 2002,2004, Lozano et al.2013). Recently, higher educations role in
fostering sustainable development and reorienting existing institutions to incorporate sustainability-
related principles, knowledge, skills, values, and perspectives has been emphasised further by the
United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 20052014 (DESD) (UNESCO Edu-
cation Sector 2005). Its goal is to integrate the values of sustainable development into all aspects of
learning in order to bring about behavioural changes for a more sustainable and just society for all. It
requires HEIs to integrate sustainability into all of their major activities rethinking their missions and
research priorities, as well as restructuring their courses, community outreach, and campus oper-
ations (Beynaghi et al.2016, Yarime et al.2012).
In theory, these declarationspotential applications on college campuses were radical. In practice,
however, progress has been slow (Velazquez et al.2005), partly because conventional university
appraisal systems do not measure compliance with sustainability goals when evaluating university
performance. From the point of view of education, sustainability is generally seen as a bolt-on
requirement (Sterling and Thomas 2006), which can be incorporated, embedded, or implemented
rather than being integral to major activities. Deconstructing the rhetoric of sustainability in
higher education, authors such as Selby and Kagawa (2010) argue that higher educations close align-
ment with a globalisation agenda facilitates a neoliberal marketplace worldview that embraces an
economic growth and managerial view of the environment. For Morrissey (2015), HEIs are now
embedded within nationally and globally competitive networks guided by neoliberal concerns of
rankings, benchmarking, and productivity. For Lynch (2006), HEIs have been transformed over the
last decade into powerful consumer-oriented corporate networks. On a similar note, Huckle and
Wals (2015) contend that the discourse guiding the DESD was essentially business as usual claiming
that it failed to acknowledge or challenge neoliberalism as a hegemonic force blocking transitions
towards genuine sustainability.
Moreover, sustainabilitys lack of fixed meaning enables university management to continue
business-as-usual operations and present sustainability in ways to suit their own agenda. This fre-
quently equates to minimal compliance with declarations or sustainability goals through demon-
stration of a commitment to continuous environmental improvement, however small (Jones 2012).
Many scholars have noted that sustainability in practice tends to operate in ways that are decisively
non-threatening to the status quo (Cortese 2003, Brown 2016)with HEIs proclaiming inclusive
visions and aspirations while simultaneously enacting a top-down bureaucratic approach to sustain-
ability actions (Jones 2015a). Emphasis on local micro-focus tends to decontextualise sustainability
efforts from broader geopolitical issues such as global climate justice. Many campus initiatives
focus on environmental considerations rather than social justice, health, and climate justice. Little
attention is paid to power, politics, citizenship, and the deeper systemic roots of the global sustain-
ability and climate crisis (Alperovitz et al.2015, Huckle and Wals 2015). The FFD movement draws
attention to this gap and encourages HEIs to reconsider how justice and human-related climate
impacts are incorporated into campus sustainability efforts, particularly climate initiatives and
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 3
programmes. According to Carlson (2015), the sustainability movement within higher education,
which emerged almost a decade ago, is in need of a new trajectory and impetus.
From individualised sustainability efforts to collective, change-oriented
sustainability
Universities have unique opportunities to address the climate challenge and catalyse societal tran-
sition towards sustainability. As spaces of knowledge production, perpetuation, and dissemination,
they have unique potential to apply knowledge to social change (Stephens et al.2008, Trencher
et al.2014b). Stephens et al.(2008) outline four ways HEIs can contribute to societal transition
towards sustainability. First, universities can act a microcosm of society modelling and promoting
sustainable practices in campus operations and environments (Ferrer-Balas et al.2009). Second, uni-
versities are seen primarily as spaces of concentrated learning. Through their teaching and curricula,
they can promote action on advancing sustainability (Colucci-Gray et al.2013). Third, higher edu-
cation can conduct action-oriented research on real-world problems, targeting the urgent sustain-
ability challenges facing society. This has placed emphasis on use-inspired and transdisciplinary
collaborations with external actors from community, local government, industry, and civic organis-
ations (Whitmer et al.2010, Sedlacek 2013, Trencher et al.2014b). Many of these partnerships are
accentuations of established paradigms such as agricultural extension, action and participatory
research, transdisciplinarity, and regional development (Trencher et al.2014a). Historical functions
and trends in higher education have tended to focus on the pursuit of income generation and econ-
omic development. Critics of this approach have called on HEIs to further align their activities with
chronic sustainability problems of the twenty-first century (Peer and Stoeglehner 2013, Beynaghi
et al.2016).
This leads us to the fourth category: HEIs as change agents, facilitating change external to their
own institution. This is akin to Bringle et al.s(1999) concept of universities as citizens”–whereby
universities are contributing, active, responsive entities in society. This function, cited in a 2004
report for the Center for Higher Education Research, is described as follows:
Universities have frequently been regarded as key institutions in processes of social change and development.
The most explicit role they have been allocated is the production of highly skilled labour and research output
to meet perceived economic needs. But to this role may be added, especially during periods of more radical
change, roles in the building of new institutions of civil society, in encouraging and facilitating new cultural
values, and in training and socialising members of new social elites. (Brennan et al.2004,p.7)
Trencher et al.(2014b) conceptualise this broader and more ambitious university function as a
societal transformer and co-creator. They define this role as collaboration with diverse social
actors to create societal transformation with the goal of materializing sustainable development in
a specific location, region or societal sub-sector(2014b, p. 152). In sustainability co-creation, the uni-
versitys role is characterised by explicit objectives to transform society through implementation of
knowledge, social, or technical innovation, representing a shift from the historical tendencies to prin-
cipally document problems of the world. Given the need for urgent action, divestment activists are
calling on HEIs to leverage their position to draw attention to the systemic societal changes required
to avert catastrophic climate change. HEIs can play a key role in modelling the transition to a clean
energy economy.
Climate change campus initiatives have tended to focus on internalised efforts at becoming sus-
tainable universities(Kemp and Loorbach 2003) through the greening of the campus, green certi-
fications, and providing educational programmes (Wachholz et al.2014). Examples of climate and
sustainability initiatives include Campus Climate Challenge (coordinated by the Energy Action
Coalition), the American College and University PresidentsClimate Commitment (ACUPCC), coordi-
nated by Second Nature, ecoAmerica, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in
Higher Education. Key efforts of these initiatives to reduce GHGs emissions include actions to adopt
4N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
an energy-efficient appliance purchasing policy, efficient use of water, waste management, low-
carbon buildings, and promotion of public transportation for campus members (Wachholz et al.
2014, ACUPCC 2015).
Many HEIs rate their sustainability performance on popular, externally accredited sustainability
league-table criteria. But there is scarce evidence that these visible tick-the-box criteria are radically
changing behaviour towards sustainability among university stakeholders (Jones 2015b). For
instance, the ACUPCC aims to provide climate leadership-by-example for the rest of society. While
nearly 700 HEIs have signed the ACUPCC, only three schools have fulfilled their pledge to reach
climate neutrality; the average climate-neutrality target date among signatory schools is 2045 (Green-
berg and Fang 2015).
Bratman et al.(2016) contend that sustainability efforts at most campuses have, so far, aligned
with mainstream greening and depoliticised sustainability efforts which focus on environmental
harm rather than its root causes. Students engaged in campus sustainability have traditionally
focused on initiatives stressing individual responsibility. Nonetheless, Grady-Benson and Sarathy
(2016) contend that the widespread mobilisation for FFD signals a sea change, from individualised
sustainability efforts to youth-led collective political action and recognition of climate change as a
social justice issue (Figures 1 and 2).
Origins and evolution of the FFD movement
FFD is a climate change initiative that seeks to withhold capital by selling stock market-listed shares,
private equities, or debt from firms investing in fossil fuel. The movement uses a range of strategies to
shame, pressure, facilitate, and encourage individual and large institutional investors to divest from
fossil fuel stocks (Ayling and Gunningham 2015), often encouraging investment in alternative ener-
gies or at least climate-neutral alternatives. This strategy, which has precedent in divestment cam-
paigns against tobacco, Sudan, and South Africa during apartheid, aims to remove the social
licence by which fossil fuel companies operate, through reputational damage and stigmatisation.
The movement emerged organically out of various Blockadia-style attempts to block carbon
extraction at its source, specifically, the movement against mountaintop-removal coalmining in
Appalachia in 2011 (Klein 2015). Blockadia, Naomi Klein writes, is a roving transnational conflict
zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are
attempting to dig and drill, whether for open pit mines, gas fracking, or tar sands pipelines(Klein
2015, pp. 294295). FFD had its beginnings at Swarthmore College in 2010, when students started
the Swarthmore Mountain Justice campaign. Organisers adopted the tactic of divestment in solidarity
with Appalachian communities (Bratman et al.2016). In 2011 and 2012, several other HEIs, including
Brown University, began coal divestment campaigns. Student activists were later joined by a national
Figure 1. Peoples Climate March, NYC, September 2014. © [Shadia Fayne Wood].
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 5
and then international campaign spearheaded by 350.org, which extended the divestment call
beyond coal to the 200 leading publicly traded fossil fuel companies (i.e. CU200). Of the 81 HEIs
divestment commitments worldwide, nearly half are US institutions (40), while the remainder are
from the UK (26), Australia (6), Sweden (3), New Zealand (3), Canada (1), Denmark (1) and the Marshall
Islands (1).
Divestment is part of a growing frontline social movement that uses increasingly confrontational
direct-action tactics, such as marches, mass arrests, lockdowns, and blockages (e.g. Tar Sands Block-
ade) (Bradshaw 2015). The movements rapid spread can be partially attributed to Bill McKibbens
(2012)Rolling Stone article Global Warmings Terrifying New Math, which popularised climate scien-
tistsrevelation that 80% of currently listed fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground as stranded
assets to prevent uncontrollable warming (Meinshausen et al.2009). Public concern was galvanised
by McKibbens argument that despite the existential threat to humanity, fossil fuel companies intend
to burn all identified reserves, regardless of the effect on climate. Fossil fuel companies spent an esti-
mated $650 billion seeking new reserves in 2013 (Leaton et al.2013). McKibben argued that the sys-
temic change required to avoid disastrous levels of climate change could only materialise through a
newly invigorated social movement which challenged the political power of the fossil fuel industry
(Bratman et al.2016). The FFD movement brought higher educations contradictory position to the
fore it is paradoxical for universities to remain invested in fossil fuels and profit from an industry
that threatens their studentsfuture (Supran 2015a). Prompted by this terrifying new math, the
non-profit 350.org catalysed FFD campaigns and student participation in the battle against the Key-
stone XL pipeline.
FFD is considered the fastest-growing divestment movement in history (Ansar et al.2013). It is now
a transnational advocacy network, which has prompted over 612 institutional commitments to divest,
including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, University of Glasgow,
Australian National University, the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association, the
city of Paris and over 50,000 individual commitments. Together, this represents over $3.4 trillion in
assets (Fossil Free 2016).
Backed by global leaders such as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Conven-
tion on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and South
African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the global advocacy network is showing no signs of stopping. It
has also drawn increased attention to the risk of stranded assets stocks that become obsolete due
to fossil fuel deposits that cannot be extracted or sold. Influential figures and organisations such as
the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; the Gover-
nor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney; HSBC; and Deutsche Bank have all flagged fossil fuels as
Figure 2. Middlebury College students linking their divestment campaign to a call for climate justice. © [Paul Gerard].
6N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
potential stranded assets, or raised doubts over their reliability as a continuing source of profitable
investment. The value of financial assets is thus at risk in the face of both unabated climate
change and more ambitious climate policy (Dietz et al.2016).
Methods
Our research is based on over two years of participant observation within the FFD movement and
involvement in key gatherings, including: divestment events in the Greater Boston region, partici-
pation in university panel discussions and workshops (e.g. Confronting capitalism & climate crisis:
economics for achieving justice, equity, and sustainability summer school, Smith College.), the
UNFCCC Bonn climate change conference (June 2015), the UNFCCC COP21, and the Peoples
Climate Summit in Paris. Both authors participated (as faculty and student leaders respectively) in
the Salem State University divestment campaign, and thus are afforded unique access and insight
into HEIsdivestment deliberations and the movement itself. Nevertheless, the positions presented
in this paper are based on empirical data and are distinct from the authorsadvocacy. Alongside par-
ticipant observation, the lead author interviewed 31 key figures, including student and faculty in the
FFD movement, and HEI decision-makers. With a multi-method approach combining semi-structured
qualitative interviews, participant observation, and document analysis, the research captured the
officialposition of divestment protagonists while also facilitating a critical exploration of the con-
nections between intricate political power structures in university boardrooms and their respective
boards of trustees and fund managers. Interviewees were asked how HEIs could effectively tackle
the climate crisis, and what their views were on the future trajectory of sustainability within higher
education. Most data were collected between October 2014 and July 2016.
Clarification of FFD aims and strategies
First, we need to situate FFD within a broad spectrum of climate actions. Most transnational climate
change initiatives are based on market liberal and institutional worldviews (see Bulkeley et al.2014).
Governments and corporations publicly acknowledge the need to implement urgent mitigation
actions, yet they reject policy actions that may challenge continued fossil fuel extraction and pro-
duction. Instead, governments stress free-market fixes like carbon trading and unproven technologi-
cal solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS), with the latter embedded in the 2015 Paris
Agreement (Anderson 2015, Barry 2016). Countries put forward non-committal, ambitious-sounding
goals (e.g. the Paris Agreement: Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as
soon as possible) while making investments and policy decisions that further entrench us in the
carbon economy. These tendencies all reinforce cognitive frames that can inhibit our ability to see
solutions to addressing climate change (Reyes 2015). In over 20 years of international climate nego-
tiations (including Paris COP21), the issue of limiting fossil fuel extraction and production has been
ignored (Marshall 2015, Monbiot 2015). The result is a technocratic misframing of the climate crisis
as a problem of excessive GHGs emissions that can be solved through technological change and
voluntary international agreements. In contrast, political economy approaches, which explicitly
seek to limit fossil fuel extraction and production in the first place, remain marginalised. The
phrase fossil fuelsconspicuously does not appear once in the Paris Agreement. Divestment is
thus reframing and transforming the terms and nature of the climate debate, inserting ethics, politics,
and importantly, fossil fuels into the climate narrative. In contrast, FFD, and other Blockadia-style
climate movements (e.g. Stop Keystone XL Pipeline) directly addresses fossil fuel production by
putting pressure on decision-makers to keep it in the ground(the movements slogan).
The movement aims to bring about a complete break with fossil fuels, resulting in a radical and
rapid structural shift in the economy, consistent with the energy revolutionadvocated by the Inter-
national Energy Agency (International Energy Agency 2009, p. 3). This energy revolution proposes
reorienting an energy system currently dominated by fossil fuels. Ultimately, this necessitates
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 7
leaving approximately 33% of oil reserves, 50% of gas reserves, and over 80% of current coal reserves
in the ground by 2050 (McGlade and Ekins 2015). Rather than relying on far-off temperature targets,
net zero emissions targets offer a more effective focal point to guide policy and socio-economic path-
ways within global carbon budgets (Geden 2016). For instance, the International Energy Agency
(2012) says this means that if action to reduce CO
2
emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allow-
able CO
2
emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time(p. 3), hence the
need for divestment.
Despite the growth of institutional divestment, a fragmented understanding of the aims of the
movement persists between HEIs and the general public (Cleveland and Reibstein 2015). Previously
successful divestment campaigns, for example, South Africa, articulated a clear connection between
the tactic (divestment) and end goal (the end of apartheid). The continued vitality of the current
movement necessitates greater clarification of the role of FFD in helping to transform humanitys
energy production and consumption systems. Through a synthesis of FFD reports, divestment litera-
ture, public statements, and interviews with protagonists, we provide necessary clarification of the
connections between the movements goals and tactics (see Table 1).
Divestment protagonists know that divestment is unlikely to have much, if any, immediate or
direct effect on the valuation of fossil fuel companies; they say it represents just one tactic in a
broader climate activist movement. No individual actor or tactic will be the agent of change but
collectively, through intersections among a multitude of actors and movements, the climate
change narrative is being reframed (Reyes 2015). Consequently, FFD is fast becoming an important
node in a constellation of transnational non-state governance initiatives adopting alternative
approaches to climate solutions utilising strategies based on arguments of morality and ethics
(Ayling and Gunningham 2015).
Divested schools in US higher education
Campus protests and student resolutions propelled some HEIs to divest quickly (e.g. Sterling College;
Foothill-de Anza Community College district), while other campaigns met with stern administrative
Table 1. Aims and strategies of the FFD movement.
FFD strategies
Stigmatising the fossil fuel industry, thereby undermining its political power and lowering the barriers to the passage of meaningful
climate legislation (e.g. carbon tax; ban on further drilling) (Brown et al.2014)
Pressuring governments to enact legislation that will help create market conditions in which alternative energies can thrive (e.g.
termination of fossil fuel subsidies) (Ansar et al.2013)
Raising awareness of urgent need for vast scaling up of renewable energies and efficiency technologies (e.g. fuel cell development)
(Patsky and Samuelrich 2014)
Shifting the public discourse on our collective energy future by promoting climate consciousness and actions at personal and
institutional levels (Brown et al.2014)
Raising awareness in the financial community about the systemic risk of fossil fuel stranded assets, i.e. stocks that become obsolete
due to fossil fuel deposits that cannot be extracted or sold, thus raising doubts over their reliability as a continuing source of
profitable investment (Brown et al.2014)
Increase public awareness of the social consequences of climate change and the systematic human rights violations of the
corporate fossil fuel-complex
Raising awareness of fossil fuel-interest-funded misinformation and denial of climate change
Linking climate change to other critical sustainability issues such as massive population displacement, water scarcity, global
conflicts, and national security (student interview #14)
Raising awareness of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on developing nations, economically disadvantaged
communities, and future generations, who bear the least historical responsibility for its cause (Brown et al.2014)
Linking climate change to racial and economic justice on local and national levels (student interview #11)
Expanding climate activism outside the gates of university campuses and linking divestment campaigns to other local and regional
Blockadia-type campaigns (student interview #14)
Pressuring HEIs to become model carbon-neutral environments (student interview #11)
Pressuring fossil fuel companies to undergo transformative change, leading to a drastic reduction in carbon emissions (e.g. by
switching to less carbon-intensive forms of energy supply) (Brown et al.2014)
Increasing awareness of the need to minimise hardships for workers and their communities affected by and dependent on a fossil
fuel economy, i.e. a just transition(faculty interview #6).
8N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
opposition (e.g. Harvard). Student activists and university administration alike have been thrust into a
new policy domain. While the decision to divest has been subject to widespread debate, HEIs
responses and policy pathways have received little analysis in the literature. Addressing this gap,
we grouped current institutional divestment approaches into categories that describe the process
for schools that have committed to divestment as of October 2016. Divestment commitments
began in institutions with small endowment and enrolment sizes. During the first two years of the
movement, two schools divested: Hampshire College in 2011, and Unity College in 2012. Eight
schools divested in 2013, and nine in 2014. In 2015, 14 HEIs committed to divest, including high-
profile schools like Syracuse University, Georgetown University, and four state university systems
(Maine, Washington, Hawaii, and California). Thus far, in 2016, seven HEIs have committed to
divest including three with billion-dollar endowments (Boston University, University of Maryland,
and Yale University) and a major state university system (University of Massachusetts). Overall, 40
HEIs 25 private and 15 public have committed so far. Sixteen hold endowments over $100
million, eight of which are in the billions (University of Maryland, $1b; Syracuse University, $1.2b;
Georgetown University, $1.5b; Boston University, $1.6b; University of Washington, $2.8b; University
of California, $8.9b; Stanford University, $18.7b; Yale University, $25.6b).
Much debate (and confusion) exists about the extent to which an institution will divest. We ident-
ified three leading divestment strategies employed by HEIs: inclusive, selective (Carbon Underground
200) (Braman et al.2014), and targeted (see Table 2). Sixteen HEIs are pursuing inclusive divestment,
the most comprehensive approach, shedding holdings from any coal, oil, or gas company. Fifteen
HEIs chose selective divestment, which uses the CU200 list as a guide. Eight HEIs chose targeted
divestment, which is the selection of, and divestment from, one or more specific carbon-emitting
sectors (e.g. coal and tar-sands). Schools that chose targeted divestment are still subject to sustained
pressure from advocates to commit to more extensive divestment (e.g. Stanford University). Further-
more, divestment movements do not specifically require reinvestment in alternative energy. Many
institutions (e.g. Prescott College) encourage a balanced approach to reinvestment, which involves
reallocating divested capital into funds that perform similarly to fossil fuel stocks or into currently
held non-fossil fuel companies.
We also expanded Grady-Benson and Sarathys(2016) work in identifying the official stated factors
of why HEIs adopted or rejected divestment. Through analysis of press releases and news reports, we
found similar motivations for divestment echoed across current commitments (see Table 3). In total,
73% of HEI cited alignment with values as a primary motivation for FFD; others expressed similar
views, such as a desire to support campus environmental efforts or maintain a positive reputation.
Over half (53%) expressed a desire to take leadership on a critical matter facing the planet, with
many referencing the moral imperative to act on climate change or their participation in the
ACUPCC. Of currently divested schools, 63% are signatories of the ACUPCC, though divestment is
not required for ACUPCC membership. A significant proportion (20%) of schools explicitly state
that they expect minimal harm to the endowmentfollowing divestment and reallocation of
funds; 30% note that this shift is expected to improve the long-term stability of investments.
Almost a quarter (23%) were motivated by previously stated policies for responsible investment,
for example, Hampshire Colleges Policy on Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing (ESG)
(1977, revised 2012) and Stanfords Statement on Investment Responsibility (1971, revised 2013).
Table 2. Leading divestment strategies employed by HEIs.
Inclusive Divestment Most comprehensive, and involves the divestment from all fossil fuel companies beyond those listed
on the Carbon Underground 200 (CU200) (see Braman et al. 2014). Institutions may choose to divest
from all direct holdings, or all direct and comingled funds.
Selective (CU200)
Divestment
Used as the standard for full divestmentby Go Fossil Free. This involves divestment from the CU200,
which lists the top 100 coal and top 100 oil and gas companies, ranked by potential emissions
content of their proven reserves.
Targeted Divestment Narrowest scope, and involves divestment from one or a few specific industries (e.g., coal, tar sands).
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 9
During the divestment process, over half (68%) have adopted, or updated, institutional investment
legislation to uphold FFD and ESG criteria.
Rejection of FFD
Of the 46 colleges that have explicitly rejected divestment, 25 hold billion-dollar endowments. Seven-
teen schools have endowments of $15b, five have endowments of $510b (Cornell University,
$6.26b; Washington University at St. Louis, $6.76b; Duke University, $7.04b; Columbia University,
$9.2b; Notre Dame University, $10b), and four have endowments over $10 billion (University of Michi-
gan, $10.26b; MIT, $13.48b; Princeton University, $18.8b; Harvard University, $36.4b). As with FFD
commitments, we analysed the press releases of HEIs who rejected divestment (see Table 4). Most
schools (78%) cited costs and/or risks to the endowment as key motivators for rejection, 26 of
which noted their fiduciary responsibilityin official communications. Almost two-thirds (65%)
stated that divestment would have a minimal or unknown impact on the fossil fuel industry, with
many citing more effectiveways to address climate change like shareholder advocacy (e.g. MIT)
and increased investments in sustainability (e.g. Williams College). Arguments from high-profile
schools have garnered much attention: 20% stated that divestment is contradictory when a school
continues to consume fossil fuels (e.g. Columbia University), and 26% stated that endowments
should not be used to make a political statement (e.g. Princeton University). The latter was made infa-
mous by Harvard president Drew Faust, who stated:
We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would
appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution. Conceiving of the endow-
ment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to
exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enter-
prise. The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change. (2013)
Strongly disputing and challenging Fausts position, Divest Harvard and Harvard Faculty For Divest-
ment cited the universitys previous support for divestment campaigns (e.g. tobacco). Not divesting,
they declared, is itself a political act. They also argue that shareholder engagement will not propel a
company to fundamentally change its core business plan (Harvard Faculty for Divestment 2014). The
divestment movement has (re-)politicised HEI endowment portfolios, a component of university
practice traditionally ignored in campus discussions of sustainability. HEIs are now being forced to
take a position on the carbon economy. The divestment campaign is also pushing HEIs to recognise
that their largely depoliticised approach to the sustainability dilemma lends implicit support to fossil
fuel-complex human rights violations: We invest in Shell, a company who have decimated the Niger
Delta and the Ogoni people(student interview #2). Increasing public awareness of the social conse-
quences of extractivism aims to push HEI efforts away from compliance-oriented sustainability
towards an emergent paradigm of climate justice.
The rhetoric and politics of sustainability in higher education
Many universities that rejected divestment responded with new, or renewed, internalised campus
climate commitments (e.g. improved carbon-reduction commitments, climate research funds, sus-
tainability-oriented degree offerings). While welcome as constructive steps, these were seen by
many activists as jumping on the bandwagon of sustainability studies and corporate green
energy, rather than dealing with the political realities of climate change(faculty interview #3). Inter-
estingly, 67% of schools that rejected divestment are ACUPCC signatories.
Divestment activists argued that many universities were embracing eco-narratives as a rhetorical
device (Jones 2012), rather than as a reflection of or an impetus to proactively address the root
causes of climate change. HEIsfocus on supply-side climate policy research, for example, carbon
trading and CCS, was also questioned by interviewees. Fossil fuel companies, they claimed, are
shaping the political and societal response to the climate emergency through funding solutions
10 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
which do not challenge continued carbon as usual(faculty interview #7). These efforts, in their
eyes, fail to challenge the dominant political-economic system of continued fossil fuel extraction
and production. Student campaigns thus conveyed a tension between reform and transformative
action both desiring to belong to their school, and rejecting it as a cog in defence of the
status quo.
Similarly, while divestment groups welcomed the reactive establishment of portfolio
advisory committees, many viewed this as delay tactics, or attempts to quell momentum
(student interview #11). MIT, for instance, established the Climate Change Conversation Commit-
tee: a comprehensive consultation over nine months with the MIT community that culminated in
backing an action (by 9 to 3) to divest from coal and tar sands. Divestment groups protested
MITs rejection of its own committees recommendation and ignoring of the unanimous
support for creating an Ethics Advisory Council to explicitly combat misinformation and avoid
inadvertently supporting disinformation through investments (Stocker et al.2015). Faculty in
support of divestment expressed their deep frustration with MITs climate action plan,as
stated in their open letter:
Though we welcome the constructive steps embodied in the plan and applaud the acknowledgement of the
seriousness and urgency of the climate threat, and the need for MIT to play a public leadership role,wedo
not believe the Plan for Action on Climate Change meets these aspirations. If MIT sincerely aims to Accelerate
progress towards low- and zero-carbon energy technologies,Educate a new generation of climate, energy
and environmental innovators, and Share what we know, and learn from others around the world, the first
thing and simplest thing to do would be to put out a strong message. This is exactly divestment. Else,
these headlines are nice predicates, crafted to sound exciting but ultimately ringing hollow. (MIT Faculty for
Divestment 2015)
Universitiesfailure to take a position on the carbon economy aligns with a green-economy discourse
rather than adopting a system-change-oriented notion of sustainability, which places climate justice
front and center (Bratman et al.2016). Similarly, Harvards response was to become a signatory to the
UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and the Carbon Disclosure Projects climate
change programme, and commit to continued engagement in and funding of research into sustain-
ability energy science and governance (Faust 2014). Activists, however, were more sceptical: While
its great signing up for charters, it is just creating a narrative of action rather than reality(student
interview #3). Universities that rejected divestment frequently illustrated the language and narrative
of engagement (e.g. establishing advisory committees, public hearings) while simultaneously imple-
menting a top-down, techno-centred set of quick xes (e.g. by improving internalised sustainability
goals).
The movement has also attempted to engage with university fund managers, boards of trustees,
and business-dominated communities to re-evaluate interpretations of socially responsible investing
(SRI), ESG, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) spheres. In doing so, it has shed light on the tech-
nocratic, top-down bureaucratic approach to decision-making by boards of trustees: Harvard Cor-
poration operates completely behind closed doors, excluding youth voices and doesnt even listen
to faculty or alumni(student interview #1). The vision, action, and transparency that supposedly
characterise education and campus operations are virtually absent from financial decision-making;
as Karp et al.(2014) put it, sustainability has not reached the boardroom to nearly the same extent
as it has the classroom, the dining room, and the boiler room. The movement is also calling on
HEIs to exercise more ethical oversight of its investments, and to do so in a transparent and commu-
nity-backed manner.
The fossil fuel industry has a long-standing campaign of spreading disinformation and doubt
about the scientific consensus on climate change, and deliberately distorting public policy and
energy regulations (Oreskes and Conway 2011). Close relationships between the fossil fuel industry,
boards of trustees and fund managers in major universities raise questions about how patronclient
relations and political expediency may influence decision-making: Its naïve to think that influential
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 11
Table 3. FFD commitments.
HEI
Est.
endowment Scope Stated motivations for FFD
Adler University, IL Data
unavailable
Inclusive .Alignment with values
.Previously stated SRI policy
Brevard College, NC $25m Inclusive .Uphold mission statement
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Boston University, MA $1.644b Targeted (Coal & Tar
Sands)
.Part of comprehensive Climate Action Plan
.Reducing energy consumption key to
mitigating climate change
California Institute of the Arts, CA $115m Inclusive (Direct) .Alignment with values
.Eliminate exposure to most carbon-
intensive companies
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Chico State University, CA $52m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
College of the Atlantic, ME $30m Inclusive .Alignment with values
.Expect no harm to endowment
.Morally and politically just
Foothill-De Anza CC Foundation,
CA
$33m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.Long-term investment strategy
Georgetown University, DC $1.5b Targeted (Coal) .Alignment with values and mission
.Part of campus sustainability efforts
.Long-term stability
Goddard College, VT $1m Inclusive .Logical extensionof campus
environmental efforts
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Green Mountain College, VT $3.4m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Adoption of SRI policy
Hampshire College, MA $31.8m Inclusive (Direct) .Alignment with values
.Previously stated ESG policy/history of SRI
.Long-term stability
Humboldt State University, CA $26m Inclusive .Previously stated SRI policy
.Commitment to sustainability
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Naropa University, CO $6.25m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.History of SRI
.Shareholder advocacy would not result in
significant changes in behavior
The New School, NY $220m Inclusive (Direct) .Make a big public statement
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
.Part of campus environmental/
sustainability efforts
Pacific School of Religion, CA Data
unavailable
Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values and faith
.Balance optimalinvestments with social
change
Peralta CC District, CA Data
unavailable
Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Providing for future students
.Leadership on critical issue facing planet
Pitzer College, CA $124m Inclusive .Alignment with values
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.Part of campus environmental/
sustainability efforts
Pratt Institute, NY $123m Inclusive .Alignment with values & teaching
.Lead by example
.History & commitment to sustainability
Prescott College, AZ $4.6m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Long-term stability
.Upholds ACUPCC
Rhode Island School of Design, RI $328.3m Inclusive (Direct) .Important issue to the school and its
community
.Right action to take
Salem State University, MA $18.2m Selective (CU200) .Addressing pressing issue facing planet
.Part of campus sustainability efforts
(Continued)
12 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
Table 3. Continued.
HEI
Est.
endowment Scope Stated motivations for FFD
San Francisco State University
Foundation, CA
$51.2m Targeted (Coal & Tar
Sands)
.Previously stated sustainability policy
.Commitment to social justice
.Previously stated SRI policy
Santa Fe Art Institute, NM Data
unavailable
Inclusive .Alignment with values
.Positive social force
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Stanford University, CA $18.7b Targeted (Coal) .Alignment with values
.Availability of alternative energy sources
.Previously stated SRI policy
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Sterling University, VT $1m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Long-term stability
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.History of environmental stewardship
SUNY College of Environmental
Science and Forestry, NY
$29m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
Syracuse University, NY $1.2b Inclusive (Direct) .Commitment to environmental
stewardship and good corporate
citizenship
.Previously stated SRI policy
Union Theological Seminary, NY $108.4m Inclusive (Direct) .Alignment with moral/theological values
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.One small steptowards healing a
wounded planet
Unity College, ME $13.5m Inclusive (Direct) .Alignment with values
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.Ethical imperative
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
University of California, CA Data
unavailable
Targeted (Coal & Tar
Sands)
.Concern over risky investments
.Pollution concerns and drop in global
demand
University of Dayton, OH $670m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with religious and social values
.Long-term stability
.Expect minimal harm to endowment
.Upholds ACUPCC
.Moral imperative to act
University of Hawaii, HI $66m Inclusive (Direct) .Previously stated sustainability policy
.Long-term economic argument
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
University of Maine System, ME $121m Targeted (Coal) .Alignment with values
.Long-term stability
.Leadership on critical matter facing planet
University of Maine at Presque Isle
Foundation, ME
Data
unavailable
Inclusive .Reaffirm commitment to environmental
sustainability
.Alignment with values
.Part of campus sustainability efforts
University of Maryland, MD $1b Selective (CU 200) .Limit exposure to most dirty energy
.Recognise the threat of climate change
University of Mary Washington, VA $41.4m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values
.Leadership on sustainability
.Demonstrate commitment to environment
University of Massachusetts
Foundation, MA
$770m Targeted (Coal) .Alignment with values
.Leadership on climate change
.Adoption of SRI policy
.Upholds ACUPCC
University of Washington, WA $2.8b Targeted (Coal) .Alignment with values
.Upholds ACUPCC and Washington Business
Climate Declaration
Warren Wilson College, NC $55m Selective (CU 200) .Alignment with values, culture, and mission
.Adoption of SRI policy
Yale University $25.6b Targeted ($10 m from
Coal & Oil Sands)
.Alignment with principles
.Fiscally responsible
.Get ahead ofcarbon pricing
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 13
Table 4. FFD rejections.
HEI Est. endowment Stated motivations for rejection
American University, DC $535m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal impact
.Costs: $1m$2 m per year
Amherst College, MA $2.19b .Fiduciary responsibility
.Shareholder advocacy
.Minimal impact
Bates College, ME $233.8m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Costs and risks
.Distorts colleges core mission
Boston College, MA $2.13b .Contradictory while consuming FF
.Minimal impact
.Costs
.Fiduciary responsibility
Bowdoin College, ME $1.22b .Costs and risks
.Minimal impact
.Do not make political statement with endowment
Brown University, RI $3b .Not the right tool
.Minimal impact
Bryn Mawr College, PA $71m .Costs
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal impact
.Shareholder advocacy
Carleton College, MN $792.7m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Do not make political statement with endowment
.Minimal impact
.Shareholder advocacy
City University of New York, NY Data
unavailable
.Costs and risks
Colby College, ME $740m .Effect on reducing global warming unclear
.Slippery slope
.Fiduciary responsibility
Colorado College, CO $593m .Costs and risks
.Minimal impact
Columbia University, NY $9.2b .Shareholder advocacy
.Contradictory while consuming FF
.Minimal impact
Cornell University, NY $6.2b .Risk
.Solve climate change with technological solutions
.Do not make political statement with endowment
Davidson College, NC $649.3m .Impede committees mission
.Minimal impact
.Question integrity while consuming FF
Duke University, NC $7.04b .Unknown impact
.Taking more effectivesteps
.Minimal impact
Fort Lewis College, CO $17.2m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal impact
.Contradictory while consuming FF
George Washington University, DC $1.62b .Not the only/best way to address climate change
.Divestment is not a part of investment strategy
Harvard University, MA $36.4b .Costs and risk
.Do not make political statement with endowment
.Minimal impact
Haverford College, PA $434m .Costs and risks
.Minimal impact
.Not the right step
.Fiduciary responsibility
Middlebury College, VT $1.08b .Costs and risks
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal/unknown impact
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
MA
$13.48b .Shareholder engagement
(Continued)
14 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
Table 4. Continued.
HEI Est. endowment Stated motivations for rejection
New York University, NY $3.5b .Fiduciary responsibility
.Not impactfulway to address climate change
Notre Dame University, IN $10b .Contradictory while consuming FF
Oregon State University, OR $700m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Unknown impact
Pomona College, CA $1.8b .Risk
.Predict loss of $485 million over 10 years
.Minimal impact
Princeton University, NJ $18.8b .Do not make political statement with endowment
.Contradictory while consuming FF
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Slippery slope
Reed College, OR $543m .Risk to endowment
.Contradictory while consuming FF
.Fiduciary responsibility
Santa Clara University, CA $884.7m .Minimal/unknown impact
.Costs
.Lack of fund choices available
Seattle University, WA $210.6m .Minimal impact
.More effective waysto address climate change
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Do not make political statement with endowment
Swarthmore College, PA $1.88b .Fiduciary responsibility predict loss of $10m$20 m per
year
.Minimal impact
.Cost would outweigh any potential benefit
Tufts University, MA $1.44b .Costs and risk
.Predict loss of $75 m over 10 years
.Pursue other climate action
.Fiduciary responsibility
Tulane University, LA $1.2b .Not appropriate or effective minimal impact
.Do not make political/ideological statement with
endowment
.Risk to endowment
University of Colorado, CO $1.09b .Do not make political statement with endowment
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Not the answer”–minimal impact
University of Michigan, MI $10.26b .Do not make political statement with endowment
.No viable alternativeto FF at necessary scale
University of Montana, MT $176.9m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Do not make political statement with endowment
University of North Carolina, NC $2.7b .Divestment is not the optimal way to go
.Contradictory while consuming FF
University of Oregon, OR $627m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal/unknown impact
.Do not make political statement with endowment
University of Rhode Island, RI $103m .Costs and risks
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Loss of potential investment opportunities
University of Tennessee, TN $1b .Could affect future funding (scholarships, etc.)
.Controversialto mission
University of Vermont, VT $422m .Fiduciary responsibility
.Risk to endowment
University of Wisconsin, WI $2.02b .Minimal impact
.Fiduciary responsibility
.Distraction from more important and difficult behavioral
changes
.Do not make political statement with endowment
Vassar College, NY $974.2m .Shareholder advocacy
.Unknown impact
.Fiduciary responsibility
Washington University at St. Louis, MO $6.7b .Other stepscan be taken to address climate change
(Continued)
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 15
donors and short-term incentives of fund managers are not having their say(student interview #4).
This question was raised in a press release by the MIT student group:
Climate disinformation bankroller David Koch has previously given MIT $185 million and is a Life Member of MITs
Board of Trustees. President Reifs decision also comes during a $5.5 billion capital campaign the largest in the
Institutes history. MIT receives more industry funding than almost any other university in the country. Sponsors of
MIT energy research include ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Eni, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil, Total, and the American
Petroleum Institute and its 600-plus members. (Supran 2015b)
Students argued that by maintaining investments in fossil fuels, universities are undermining the
integrity of science and are forfeiting their duty and moral responsibility as an institution of learning
(participant observation, 2014 MIT Climate CoLab conference). Expressing similar concerns, Swarth-
more Mountain Justice publicly called for three board members to recuse themselves from future
conversations on FFD due to their considerable personal and nancial ties with the fossil fuel industry:
One trustee served on a mutual fund board which held over $800 million dollar investment in Exxon-
Mobil, while another trustees consulting group advocated for the legalization of Arctic drilling
(student interview #12). Similar conicts of interest were identied at other HEIs. For instance,
Harvard trustee Theodore Wells currently acts as legal counsel for ExxonMobil (faculty interview
#5), while a trustee at another school vehemently declared that personal investments in Exxon put
his kids through college (participant observation board of trustee meeting #2). The institutional
capacity to divest, divestment protagonists argued, is clearly inuenced by individual and insti-
tutional ties to the fossil fuel industry.
FFD protagonists also argued that many HEI presidents and trustees are impeding critical action
on climate. For example, the anti-divestment website run by the Independent Petroleum Association
of America (2016) is rife with quotes from university presidents (Franta 2016). Interviews suggested
that many HEI administrations chose social reproduction over social transformation, prioritized indi-
vidual climate responsibility over institutional responsibility, and defended the status quo at the
expense of systemic change.
In many cases, rejection of studentscalls for divestment have caused an escalation in climate
organising. For instance, Harvards divestment rejection paved the way for a group of students to
file a lawsuit in November 2014 (Harvard Climate Justice v. President and Fellows of Harvard
College). In April 2015, approximately 100 students blocked Harvard administrative offices for
Harvard Heat Week. Similarly, members of Fossil Free MIT staged a 116-day sit-in outside President
L. Rafael Reifs office following MITs divestment rejection on 21 October 2015. Just a few months later
(12 April 2016), four Harvard students were arrested after they staged a sit-in at the Boston Federal
Reserve. Students were protesting Harvard Management Companys recent decision to invest in a
private equity fund that supports struggling oil and gas companies. Similar actions took place at
UMass Amherst where 34 UMass students were arrested for occupying administration buildings in
the lead up to UMass divestment vote. UMass fully divested on 25 May 2016. These actions reflect
the escalation of campaigns and the willingness of students to organise over the long term in the
name of divestment and climate action.
Table 4. Continued.
HEI Est. endowment Stated motivations for rejection
Wellesley College, MA $1.08b .Minimal impact
.Costs and risks
.Fiduciary responsibility
Whitman College, WA $445m .Costs and risks
.Contradictory while consuming FF
.More effectiveways to address climate change
.Minimal impact
Williams College, MA $2.34b .Fiduciary responsibility
.Minimal impact
.Costs and risks
16 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
Re-orienting sustainability towards a paradigm of climate justice
The divestment movement is slowly transforming the climate change narrative from a technocratic
analysis of carbon emissions to a human-centred narrative that calls for systemic social and economic
change. It demands a shift from compliance-oriented sustainability behaviour to a more politicised
focus on the standpoint of HEIs in the modern fossil fuel economy. The FFD movement is thus
sowing the seeds of an alternative mission of higher education one that provides increasingly
proactive engagement with the urgent political realities of the decarbonisation challenge. Overcom-
ing carbon lock-in requires an explicit role from HEIs in combating climate change misinformation
and confronting special-interest lobbying of policy-makers who are obstructing action on climate.
Stigmatising the fossil fuel industry and creating space for meaningful political action means drasti-
cally reimagining a world without fossil fuels (Karney et al.2015). The moral imperative to respond
thus necessitates HEIs to urgently stress the physical and permanent social, technical, and economic
changes required if we are to avoid irreversible climate change. Fully integrating sustainability into
the core business of higher education requires addressing fundamental ethical questions of respon-
sibility concerning the actions (or lack thereof) by HEI leadership in addressing the climate crisis.
Resolving these challenges requires changes in institutional behaviour at all levels and re-evaluation
of the core responsibility of HEIs in averting catastrophic climate change. Activists are calling on HEIs
to extend their influence through a broad range of channels, approaches, and actors. Key recommen-
dations emanating from interviews included the following:
.The urgency of the climate crisis and the inadequacy of incremental, business-as-usual
approaches should encourage HEIs to consider and carry out exceptional measures (faculty inter-
view #5);
.Taking a proactive and explicit role in tackling the immediate political economy of overcoming
carbon lock-in by divesting from all fossil fuels;
.Establishing ethics advisory councils to explicitly combat misinformation and avoid inadvertently
supporting disinformation through investments (Stocker et al.2015);
.Requesting trustees and financial advisors to publically declare ties/interests to fossil fuel compa-
nies/energy sector. Independent ethics advisory councils should assess conflict of interests and
increase transparency;
.Redefining fiduciary duty in the context of the climate crisis (see US Department of Labor 2015);
.(Re)defining sustainability in its most holistic and systemic sense, accounting for both ecological
and intra- and intergenerational equity issues;
.Making the climate crisis the primary focus of curricula, research and funding; e.g. The New School
and Unity College have already taken similar steps;
.Reorienting climate education to increase attention on climate justice and human rights violations,
and restoring a civic pedagogy which establishes bonds with social movements (see Huckle and
Wals 2015);
.Establishing regional intercollegiate councils (Stocker et al.2015) whereby groups of universities
team up to address critical climate issues (e.g. supply-side climate policies, climate denial, the
need for systemic political-economic change). These councils could also increase public awareness
about the urgent need to greatly scale up renewable energies and efficiency-technology
investments.
Bridging the climate action gap
A handful of US HEIs have embraced transformative climate actions; yet, this research indicates that
US higher education predominantly supports a reformist perspective on green transformations. For
example, many divestment protagonists denounced HEIsfailure to acknowledge or challenge a
politicaleconomic system that supports the continued business-as-usual ideology of fossil fuel
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 17
production and extraction. Divestment protagonists called for HEIs to extend their duty of care
beyond incremental business-as-usual approaches. FFD is rewriting the climate narrative as an
ethical problem about fossil fuels, which requires HEIs to play a greater role. In particular, HEIs can
mediate social discourse on complex and contentious societal trade-offs in the transition to a low
carbon world.
Helping to inform and shape public opinion and policy is important precursors to changes in regu-
lations and incentives (e.g. carbon taxes, renewable subsidies, consumption-target tax incentives)
that are ultimately necessary to meet the challenges of climate change (Karney et al.2015). HEIs
can play a greater leadership role in persuading governments to implement these regulations or
incentives and to persuade the public to accept and to demand such policies. The movement for
divestment is engaging with business-dominated communities by opening up endowments invest-
ments to critique. Divestment is impacting how institutions interpret SRI, ESG, and corporate social
responsibility (CSR) spheres. Californias public pension funds incurred a massive loss of $5 billion
in the last year alone from their holdings in the top 200 FF companies (Fleishman and Lana 2015),
thus increasing climate change awareness at an institutional level. FFD can also draw attention to
the undercapitalisation of renewable energy and climate-friendly technologies.
Ultimately, FFD is a collective effort, which aims to alter what are considered appropriate priorities
for society and, by extension, appropriate decisions about investment, behaviour and public policy
(Karney et al.2015). The movement has the capacity to catalyse public discourse and extend the
web of influence and action that could bring about a normative shift in attitudes towards climate
change and the fossil fuel industry (Ayling and Gunningham 2015). With the continued spread of
FFD, it is possible that it will become a normative and expected action within higher education.
For instance, pressure from the divestment movement prompted the US Labor Department to
issue new guidance
1
for retirement plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security
Act of 1974 (ERISA), which provides fiduciaries with greater comfort in incorporating ESG consider-
ations in their investment decisions (Goldman Sachs 2015). Many financial intermediaries have
rapidly responded to the divestment movement, developing new products and services with
fossil-free investment options (e.g. the launch of a fossil-free index, by FTSE). The movement may
therefore play a pivotal role in propelling the transition to a carbon-free economy.
On 4 November 2015, new legislation that would ban coal, oil, and gas extraction on US public
land was introduced to US Congress. Adopting the slogan of the divestment movement, the Keep
It in the Ground Act has the support of several prominent politicians, including Senator Bernie
Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. While the bill has little chance of passing the Senate, it is
clear that the FFD movement has paved the way for conversations about the political economy of
fossil fuels and the potential social, political, and ecological implications of a future independent
of fossil fuels. That said, given the climate policy gridlock in the United States, it is very unlikely
that the government will take action, let alone effective action, in time to avert catastrophic
climate change. Nevertheless, HEIs are well positioned to radically shift sustainability discourse
(and action) away from narrow debates about gradualist policies that do not challenge continued
fossil fuel production and extraction. As shapers of public discourse, HEIs can play a greater role in
bridging this climate action gap, through steering policy-makers, investors and decision-makers
locally, nationally, and at all levels towards more immediate decarbonisation. HEIs can and
should play a more proactive role in nudging economies along sustainable paths rather than repli-
cating old modes of carbon-intensive development.
Postscript
The University of Oregon (listed under divestment rejections) has since committed to inclusive divest-
ment citing long-term stability, fiduciary responsibility, and a desire to lead the PAC-12collegiate
division as divestment motivations.
18 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
Note
1. On 22 October 2015, the guidance stated that, although collateral goals of ESG investing may be considered only
as tie-breakers, when choosing between otherwise equal investment alternatives,
environmental, social, and governance issues may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the
plans investment. In these instances, such issues are not merely collateral considerations or tie-breakers,
but rather are proper components of the fiduciarys primary analysis of the economic merits of competing
investment choices. (Goldman Sachs 2015,p.2)
Acknowledgements
The authors would sincerely like to thank Prof. Avi Chomsky, Prof. Marcos Luna, Prof. Gregory Trencher, Dr Ben Franta,
John OSullivan, and Joe McGuire for their helpful insights in preparing this paper.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
ORCID
Noel Healy http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2933-5723
Jessica Debski http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7820-9061
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22 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
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1[Accessed 27 March 2016].
Stanford University, 2014. Stanford to divest from coal companies [online]. Available from: http://news.stanford.edu/news/
2014/may/divest-coal-trustees-050714.html [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Sterling College, 2013. Sterling college commits to fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.cleanyield.
com/sterling-college-commits-to-fossil-fuel-divestment/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 23
Stoetzer, E., 2015. University of Hawaii becomes largest institution to divest from fossil fuels [online]. Available from: http://
college.usatoday.com/2015/06/03/university-hawaii-divests-fossil-fuels/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
SUNY ESF, 2015. ESF to divest from fossil fuel investments [online]. Available from: http://www.esf.edu/communications/
view.asp?newsID=3985 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Tobin, D., 2015. Syracuse University to divest fossil fuel investments [online]. Available from: http://www.syracuse.com/
schools/index.ssf/2015/04/syracuse_university_to_divest_fossil_fuel_investments.html [Accessed 27 March 2016].
UMPI, 2015. UMPI Foundation Board completes total divestment from fossil fuels2015 [online]. Available from: http://www.
umpi.edu/articles/umpi-foundation-board-completes-total-divestment-from-fossil-fuels/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Unity College, 2013. Unity College reports no loss from fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.unity.edu/
news/unity-college-reports-no-loss-fossil-fuel-divestment [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Unity College. Our commitment to fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.unity.edu/about-unity/
sustainability-science/fossil-fuel-divestment [Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Dayton, 2014. Dayton divests [online]. Available from: https://www.udayton.edu/news/articles/2014/06/
dayton_divests_fossil_fuels.php [Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Hawaii, 2015. Board of regents approves fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.hawaii.
edu/news/2015/05/21/board-of-regents-approves-fossil-fuel-divestment/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Maine. A resolution from the University of Maine faculty senate calling upon the administration and board of
trustees to support divestment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies [online]. Available from: http://
umaine.edu/facultysenate/files/2015/04/Divestment-Resolution_Senate_Coghlan_29April2015.pdf [Accessed 27
March 2016].
Vuynovich, M., 2015. Pacific School of religion first seminary in California to divest in fossil fuels [online]. Available from:
http://www.prweb.com/releases/2015/02/prweb12534230.htm [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Warren Wilson College, 2015. Warren Wilson College commits to fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: https://www.
warren-wilson.edu/community-news/warren-wilson-college-commits-to-fossil-fuel-divestment [Accessed 19 August
2016].
Appendix 2. Sources for Table 4
Amherst College, 2015. Statement from Amherst College board of trustees, February 24, 2015 [online]. Available from:
https://www.amherst.edu/amherst-story/facts/trustees/statements/node/600726 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Anapol, A., 2016. After divestment rejection, student leaders forge ahead [online]. Available from: http://www.gwhatchet.
com/2016/03/06/after-divestment-rejection-student-leaders-forge-ahead/ [Accessed 19 August 2016].
Blad, G., 2015. Will Notre Dame answer Popes challenge for global warming?[online]. Available from: http://
sustainableindiana2016.org/will-notre-dame-answer/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Bowen, W., 2015. Demanding universities to divest is often bad policy [online]. Available from: https://www.
washingtonpost.com/opinions/demanding-universities-to-divest-is-often-bad-policy/2015/03/27/1382fbe4-d401-
11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Brogan, B., 2013. Bowdoin College rejects studentscalls to divest fossil-fuel investments [online]. Available from: http://
bangordailynews.com/2013/02/07/business/bowdoin-college-rejects-students-calls-to-divest-fossil-fuel-
investments/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Brown University, 2013. Coal divestment update [online]. Available from: https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/
president/2013-10-27-coal-divestment-update [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Chason, R., 2015. Administration rejects divest duke proposal [online]. Available from: http://www.dukechronicle.com/
article/2015/01/administration-rejects-divest-duke-proposal [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Clemmons, T., 2014. Wash U students protest Peabody energy [online]. Available from: http://legacy.ksdk.com/story/news/
local/2014/04/22/students-protest-peabody-energy-washington-university/8022881/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Colorado College, 2015. Board of regents rejects energy company divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.colorado.
edu/news/features/board-regents-rejects-energy-company-divestment [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Cowen, S., 2014. Response from President Cowen and the board [online]. Available from: http://www.divesttulane.org/
uploads/2/4/6/6/24661412/reponse_from_president_cowen_and_the_board_of_tulane_university.pdf [Accessed
27 March 2016].
Daily Emerald, 2014. UO refuses to sell fossil fuel stocks, ignoring student vote [online]. Available from: http://www.
dailyemerald.com/2014/06/12/uo-refuses-to-sell-fossil-fuel-stocks-ignoring-student-vote/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Divestment Facts, 2015. CUNY rejects fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://divestmentfacts.com/cuny-
rejects-fossil-fuel-divestment/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Edmondson, C., 2015. ACSRI rejects fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://columbiaspectator.com/news/
2015/11/19/acsri-rejects-fossil-fuel-divestment-proposal [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Eugster, J., 2015. Board of trustees letter [online]. Available from: https://apps.carleton.edu/governance/cric/assets/Board_
Response_to_CRIC_Report.pdf [Accessed 27 March 2016].
24 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
Faulkner, T., 2014. URI rejects divestment in fossil fuels [online]. Available from: http://www.ecori.org/climate-change/2014/
3/18/uri-rejects-divestment-in-fossil-fuels [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Faust, D., 2013. Fossil fuel divestment statement [online]. Available from: http://www.harvard.edu/president/news/2013/
fossil-fuel-divestment-statement [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Gelb, M., 2015. Swarthmore chooses not to divest fossil-fuel endowment [online]. Available from: http://articles.philly.com/
2015-05-04/news/61771713_1_endowment-fossil-fuels-swarthmore-college [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Hill, C., 2016. Shareholder role crucial in climate reform [online]. Available from: http://miscellanynews.org/2016/02/17/
opinions/shareholder-role-crucial-in-climate-reform/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Holland, C., 2013. Investment policy subcommittee letter [online]. Available from: http://news.blogs.brynmawr.edu/files/
2013/08/August_27_2013BMCDivest-1.pdf [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Hongoltz-Helting, M., 2013. Colby College wont divest fossil-fuel holdings [online]. Available from: http://www.
centralmaine.com/2013/06/01/colby-college-wont-divest-fossil-fuel-holdings/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Jeon, E. Trustees say no to divestment [online]. Available from: http://amherststudent.amherst.edu/?q=article/2015/03/03/
trustees-say-no-divestment [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Johnson, T., 2013. UVM trustees reject fossil-fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/
story/news/2013/12/18/uvm-trustees-reject-fossil-fuel-divestment/4117649/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Kanter, C., 2014. Letter to sustainable student action [online]. Available from: http://www.seattleu.edu/uploadedFiles/
Student_Government_of_Seattle_University/Content/2014.02.21%20Letter%20to%20SSA.pdf [Accessed 27 March
2016].
Kelley, S., 2016. Trustees approve new standard and process for divestment consideration [online]. Available from: http://
news.cornell.edu/stories/2016/02/trustees-approve-new-standard-consider-divestment [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Liebowitz, R., 2013. Middlebury College statement on divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.middlebury.edu/
newsroom/node/459563 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Maxwell, T., 2015. UNC to keep fossil fuel holdings, researches renewables [online]. Available from: http://www.citizen-times.
com/story/news/local/2015/02/13/unc-keep-fossil-fuel-holdings-researches-renewables/23352061/ [Accessed 27
March 2016].
McConville, E., 2015. University leaders discuss commencement, crossroads in town hall meeting [online]. Available from:
http://ndsmcobserver.com/2015/02/jenkins-addresses-commencement-crossroads-town-hall-meeting/ [Accessed
27 March 2016].
McDonald, M., 2015. MIT rejects demands to divest fossil-fuel stocks, joining Yale [online]. Available from: http://www.
bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-21/mit-rejects-demands-to-divest-fossil-fuel-stocks-joining-yale [Accessed
19 August 2016].
McGarry, M., 2012. Mills says College will not divest from fossil fuels [online]. Available from: http://bowdoinorient.com/
article/7814 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Monaco, T., 2014. Statement on divestment from fossil fuel companies [online]. Available from: http://president.tufts.edu/
blog/2014/02/12/statement-on-divestment-from-fossil-fuel-companies/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Perlmutter, R., 2014. Reed College Board of trustees chairman responds to fossil free reed [online]. Available from: http://
www.reed.edu/news_center/press_releases/2013-2014/071714_ffrletter.html [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Pomona College, 2013. Pomona College evaluates endowment impact of fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from:
http://www.pomona.edu/news/2013/09/25-divestment-decision [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Reed College. Reed wont divest [online]. Available from: http://www.reed.edu/reed_magazine/september2014/articles/
eliot_circular/divest.html [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Richardson, V., 2014. American University the latest to reject fossil-fuel divestment demand [online]. Available from: http://
www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/nov/21/american-u-latest-reject-fossil-fuel-divestment-de/?page=all
[Accessed 27 March 2016].
Richardson, V., 2015. University of Colorado rejects fossil-fuel divestment calls [online]. Available from: http://www.
washingtontimes.com/news/2015/apr/16/u-colorado-rejects-fossil-fuel-divestment-calls/?page=all [Accessed 27
March 2016].
Rodebaugh, D., 2014. College foundation rejects divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.durangoherald.com/
article/20140429/NEWS01/140429517 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Santa Clara University, 2016. Issue areas: fossil fuel investments [online]. Available from: https://www.scu.edu/fa/issue-
areas/ [Accessed 19 August 2016].
Sigl, J., 2015. Santa Clara U. will not make student-demanded fossil fuel divestments [online]. Available from: http://college.
usatoday.com/2015/06/02/santa-clara-u-will-not-make-student-demanded-fossil-fuel-divestments/ [Accessed 27
March 2016].
Skelding, C., 2015. NYU working group opposes fossil-fuel divestment [online]. Available from: http://www.capitalnewyork.
com/article/city-hall/2015/03/8564868/nyu-working-group-opposes-fossil-fuel-divestment [Accessed 27 March
2016].
Spencer, C., 2014. President Clayton Spencers statement on climate change and divestment [online]. Available from: http://
www.bates.edu/president/2014/01/21/statement-on-climate-change-and-divestment/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 25
Szpaller, K., 2016. UM professor who shared Nobel for climate work believes UM foundation should divest [online]. Available
from: http://missoulian.com/news/local/um-professor-who-shared-nobel-for-climate-work-believes-um/article_
28c17114-4cda-5392-9179-c08ac14ea827.html [Accessed 19 August 2016].
Tufts University. Recommendations of the tufts divestment working group [online]. Available from: http://president.tufts.
edu/recommendations-of-the-tufts-divestment-working-group/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Michigan, 2015. Addressing climate change as a powerful community [online]. Available from: http://
president.umich.edu/news-communications/on-the-agenda/addressing-climate-change-as-a-powerful-community/
[Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Tennessee, 2014. University of Tennessee rejects proposal for fossil fuels divestment [online]. Available from:
http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2014/01/24/university-of-tennessee-rejects-proposal-for-fossil-fuels-divestment/
[Accessed 27 March 2016].
University of Wisconsin, 2014. Report of the ad hoc committee on fossil fuel use and climate change [online]. Available from:
https://www.secfac.wisc.edu/senate/2014/0203/2472%20Fossil%20fuel%20use%20and%20climate%20change%
20report.pdf [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Warren Wilson College, 2015. Warren Wilson College commits to fossil fuel divestment [online]. Available from: https://www.
warren-wilson.edu/community-news/warren-wilson-college-commits-to-fossil-fuel-divestment [Accessed 27 March
2016].
Weiss, D., 2013. Fossil fuels divestment [online]. Available from: http://ww3.haverford.edu/fossilfuelsdivestment/?id=
132428734234234 [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Wellesley College. Divestment fact sheet [online]. Available from: http://www.wellesley.edu/about/president/mytake/
divestment/factsheet [Accessed 27 March 2016].
White, C., 2015. University champions climate change, refuses to quit fossil fuels [online]. Available from: http://dailycaller.
com/2015/12/11/university-champions-climate-change-refuses-to-quit-fossil-fuels/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Williams College, 2015. Statement by the Board of Trustees and President Adam F. Falk on the colleges role in addressing
climate change [online]. Available from: http://president.williams.edu/trustees/statement-by-the-board-of-trustees-
and-president-adam-f-falk-on-the-colleges-role-in-addressing-climate-change/ [Accessed 19 August 2016].
Yale University, 2014. Statement of the Yale Corporation Committee on investor responsibility [online]. Available from:
http://acir.yale.edu/pdf%20and%20hyperlinks/CCIR%20Statement%20(2014).pdf [Accessed 27 March 2016].
Yuengert, M., 2015. Boston College speaks up about divestment, climate justice [online]. Available from: http://bcgavel.com/
2015/03/11/boston-college-speaks-up-about-divestment-climate-justice/ [Accessed 27 March 2016].
26 N. HEALY AND J. DEBSKI
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Should university endowments divest from fossil fuels? A public discussion of this question has included some university presidents issuing statements that they would not, that investments should not be used for “political action.” Many universities hold large endowments that have significant positions in fossil fuel companies and/or funds that hold fossil fuel assets. Universities consume fossil fuels in most aspects of campus operations. But universities also support most of the research that has identified the existence, nature, and consequences of climate change, and the principal purpose of the university is to educate, particularly the young adults who will live and work in the climate of the future. Arguments for divestment by universities from fossil fuels are frequently based on moral grounds. Ignoring the moral issue at the core of the climate challenge presents real peril to the reputation of universities and their standing in society. The costs of climate change stretch across generations due to the long atmospheric lifetimes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the inertia in the Earth’s climate system, posing the question of what the impacts of today’s societies are on the well being of their children and grandchildren. The poor bear the brunt of the economic and health impacts of climate, a relationship that holds within every nation, and between rich and poor nations. Climate change requires development of the capacity to manage our collective impact on our environment, and universities have a duty to help foster this development. Universities cannot pretend they have no such responsibility without forsaking the role they have historically engendered as trustees of humanity’s capacities, values, and understanding. But the case for divestment is not limited to moral imperatives. Holding assets in fossil fuel companies, and in companies that are fossil fuel-intensive, poses a significant array of risks for universities that appear on multiple, simultaneous fronts. Fossil fuel companies will eventually experience a dramatic decline in demand for their products, producing so-called “stranded carbon.” Price volatility of fossil fuel assets is the norm, and it will be exacerbated by rising concerns about extractive practices and the forced internalization of external costs, shareholder advocacy, the elimination of generous subsidies, and intense competition from energy efficiency and fast-developing, low-carbon sources of energy. Taken as a whole, the financial, moral, and reputational risks associated with holding assets in fossil fuel companies create a compelling case for divestment, even without considering the rising opportunity costs of not transferring investments to cleaner alternatives. Careful examination of the stated reasons for not divesting shows that they do not hold water. Instead of viewing the choice as “business as usual” or “disinvest,” universities should engage with other universal owners and learn how to invest responsibly. Aligning their financial interests with their commitments to sustainability will not be accomplished overnight, but that does not justify turning a blind eye to the fact that a healthy portfolio requires a healthy economy. Universities can first disinvest in the highest polluting and irresponsible operations, and launch a process of learning where to reinvest in the cleaner opportunities of the future. Developing the capacity to identify good investments that make sense from both a moral and a financial standpoint, and doing that work will help inform the rest of us. Doing this work visibly fulfills the university’s role in society, and will attract high quality students, faculty, and donors. Once this work is commenced, the question concerning where the line is to be drawn recedes in importance. These actions would provide the world with a lesson worthy of educational institutions that really are concerned with the future. These actions would demonstrate that universities understand that money management is not separate from its moral and environmental consequences, and that they will not participate in the fiction that holds that they are separate. That alone would have incalculable value because it would help convince others. Even the most cold-blooded investor will eventually have to acknowledge that these risks are growing, as is the value of industries that are not vulnerable to regulation, resistance, and devaluation. University leaders should recognize how intelligently going down the road of divestment fulfills their role in society, and that failing to fulfill the university’s basic mission will eventually degrade its reputation and capacities.
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This article takes a sympathetic look at the university fossil fuel divestment movement. The push for divestment is changing the conversation about what “sustainability” means for college campuses. It is also generating a new, more critical and politically engaged cadre of climate activists. We use a shared auto-ethnographic approach from student activists’ and professors’ perspectives to analyze the campus divestment movement based on the experience of American University’s Fossil Free AU campaign. We argue that this issue is one where sustainability politics are re-politicized as they challenge traditional power relations and conceptualizations of what environmentalism entails. The case study explores how a climate justice framework, radical perspectives, and inside/outsider strategies were used within the campaign. We argue that the campus fossil fuel divestment movement holds potential to change the university’s expressed values from complicity with fossil fuel economies toward an emergent paradigm of climate justice, stemming predominantly from student activism. The work presents new vantage points for understanding the relationship of personal experience, local campaigns of ecological resistance, and sustainability politics more broadly.
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