When I graduated from Middlebury College in February a little more than a year ago, I took part in one of the traditions that had attracted me to the school in the first place. Along with 125 other February graduates – “Febs” if you subscribe to the modern era’s excessive need for abbreviation – I donned my graduation robes, strapped on my skis, took the chairlift to the top of the nearest ski mountain, and charged down in front of a crowd of cheering friends and family members. It was a glorious day – blue skies, no wind, sun obviating the need for a jacket. It is a memory that I will always hold dear and for that reason, I prefer not to think about the students who, by mid-century, will no longer be able to take part.
Climatologists are predicting that within 30 years, more than half of the ski areas in the Northeastern United States will have to go out of business, unable to keep up with warmer winters and changed patterns of precipitation. Locked in a terrible drought, the Western United States is already feeling the pinch. Snowy mountains are essential for far more than recreation, of course. Melting snow feeds rivers, reservoirs, and farms across the United States. As it disappears, so will agriculture in some of the most productive areas of the country. There is no more existential threat than exhausting our supply of fresh water.
In the face of such incredible forces of change, it’s difficult, as a college student or a recent graduate, to possibly imagine how to help. Who are we, to see these moving patterns of nature and demand that they stop? Fortunately, we have levers we can pull. In our economy, in our political system, money is considered a protected form of speech. We can contest that definition until the ice caps have melted, but in the meantime, an endowment that invests in fossil fuels is shouting for climate change, more and faster. We are the ones moving those patterns of nature. We must demand that they stop.
People who attack divestment almost universally make two arguments. I’ve heard them in the media, I heard them at Middlebury, and I’m sure they’ll appear in the comments section of this article. First, they say, it’s impossible to make companies like BP change their business practices by divesting. The more responsible option, they say, would be to use their podium as shareholders to demand change. Those two arguments are in direct contradiction. It is impossible to make oil companies change their business practices because their business practices rely on wrecking the planet. If we do not divest, we are party to that destruction. Railing against climate change while profiting from its agents is the rough equivalent of a police officer who deals heroin on the side.
The second response ties to the first – that oil and coal companies make an awful lot of money. A year ago, the economic case for divestment relied on what then seemed like the quixotic argument that the price of oil would fall from $110 per barrel to as low as $80. Under that logic, endowments could have avoided substantial financial risk by divesting fossil fuels. With the price of crude oil now below $50, that argument is all the more powerful. If oil companies stand to gain at all in the short term, it is because of how far they’ve fallen over the past year. The investment future for coal looks even worse.
For academic institutions, the most powerful rationale for fossil fuels divestment is symbolic. Both for alumni donors and prospective students, no institution can honestly portray itself as “carbon neutral” and “environmentally friendly” while desperately clinging onto coal stocks. Divesting from fossil fuels will not bring back the snow. It will not slow the rise of the oceans or bring back the species that we have already pushed into extinction. But it can’t hurt.
Government Affairs Associate
League of Conservation Voters