Divestment campaign fuels campus environmental efforts

Dear Vassar Community,

We would like to begin by thanking Presi­dent Hill for taking the time to respond to our call for fossil fuel divestment in her letter. We would like to address both President Hill and the Vassar community in our reply.

First, we appreciate that President Hill ac­knowledges that climate change is a critical issue and recognizes how necessary policy change is in our community, the country and the world. As an institution of higher learning, our college indeed has the responsibility to take a leading role in implementing these changes. This responsibility reinforces and harmonizes with Vassar’s mission as an educational in­stitution. We are very proud of the steps that Vassar is taking towards mitigating its own car­bon impact. We recognize the groundbreaking nature of some of these developments as well as the significant time and effort they have re­quired. However, climate change is an issue of such urgency that we must take action in every way possible, and as soon as possible. Moving toward individual or institutional carbon neu­trality does not excuse us from fulfilling our duty to push for large-scale political and social change. Ultimately while reducing our CO₂ emissions is necessary, it will not be enough. The political system is rigged in favor of big industry and is hostile to positive change such as development of renewables. Initiatives to reduce Vassar’s carbon footprint and improve energy efficiency are necessary, and we ada­mantly support such actions. However, there is an urgent need for systemic changes that can­not come with technological fixes alone. Such systemic change demands a shift in the politi­cal discourse that can only be achieved by un­dermining the influence fossil fuel companies hold over the political process. By divesting, we will withdraw our implicit support for the industry’s destructive practices and highlight their inappropriate domination of the United States political process. In short, Vassar’s di­vestment, in concert with action by hundreds of other institutions, will pave the way for a world free from fossil fuels. To clarify, divest­ment is a political movement whose goal is to raise awareness and prepare the way for more radical changes in our society, like a carbon tax.

Vassar has encouraged defending social justice and progressive engagement with the broader society. Moreover, its mission state­ment includes promoting “analytical, informed, and independent thinking…and engaged cit­izenship.” Vassar must put into practice the values outlined in its mission statement. When faced with a global crisis as severe as climate change, Vassar is compelled to act strongly and decisively. To do otherwise would be to set a poor example of “engaged citizenship” for its students. We do not claim that divesting from fossil fuels is the only available course of po­litical action to slow climate change, but it is a powerful and necessary one. Moreover, divest­ment can be implemented in conjunction with the sustainability steps President Hill noted. In fact, we would argue that Vassar’s moves to­ward sustainability over the past years show that our divestment campaign has already had an impact. Vassar is a microcosm of larger po­litical and social systems. Many people have worked very hard on sustainability initiatives, and we do not intend to diminish the value of their work. However, we believe that the pres­ence of a fossil fuel divestment campaign at Vassar has helped create a political climate on campus that is much more conducive to envi­ronmental reform. We illuminated the urgency of climate change and demanded action. The board of trustees and the administration now know that student activists will hold them ac­countable for acting on climate change. We imagine the administration hoped we would be satisfied with present sustainability initiatives, but we are not. Continued pressure from the divestment campaign has left an impact. Vas­sar administrators often encourage us to work towards the establishment of a national carbon tax. They say that the divestment movement does not have the political efficacy necessary to incentivize a carbon tax, and yet in the few years since we began campaigning for divest­ment on campus there have already been steps toward implementing an internal carbon tax here. Clearly, divestment has already been par­tially successful.

At the national and global levels, the divest­ment movement contributes to changing the political atmosphere. Public opinion is now turning against the fossil fuel industry, paving the way for strong regulation and legislation. In divesting, Vassar would join the proud ranks of Stanford, Oxford, Hampshire, Pitzer, George­town, the Universities of California, Syracuse and the University of Massachusetts Founda­tion, not to mention whole cities like San Fran­cisco, Calif.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Amherst, Mass.; Boulder, Colo.; Melbourne, Australia and Oslo, Norway. It would be joining the global call to end the destructive practices of the fossil fuel industry. A few years ago, Vassar could have been a trailblazer, a leader in this historical mo­ment. We are rapidly losing this opportunity. Soon we will only be able to follow the example of other institutions. As students, we want our school to lead and to stand by our values.

President Hill mentioned Vassar’s academic progress in the environmental and scientific fields. It is sadly ironic that our endowment profits from the irreversible destruction of the very environment we are taught to study and conserve. Moreover, we are funding companies that actively deny climate science and finance misleading studies. For example, it recently emerged that Exxon has long known about the environmentally degrading effects of their fos­sil fuel extraction, but intentionally withheld this information from the public. Another irony exists in Vassar’s raising of $125 million for the new science building, which promotes envi­ronmental awareness even while disrupting the ecosystem it straddles and lacks the technology for carbon neutrality.

One common fear is that divestment would put financial aid at risk. However, our proposal only targets direct investment in 200 fossil fuel companies, which represent a small portion of the endowment. For this reason, even the most opposed administrators acknowledge that our fossil fuel divestment proposal would not im­pact financial aid. In fact, as a movement fight­ing for social and climate justice, economic equality at Vassar and in the world is of utmost importance to us.

The administration often suggests that we spend our time doing something “political” such as going door to door and getting peo­ple out to vote, educated on the issues, etc. Divestment, however, is inherently an educa­tional campaign that in effect raises awareness about climate change. Activism relying on the current political system, which President Hill advocates, is limited by the nature of available candidates as well as rigid election cycles. Di­vestment is not subject to the whims of the political process and can continue to build mo­mentum around the clock. Moreover, as long as mainstream political candidates can accept campaign donations from fossil fuel companies without significant backlash, no political can­didate will do enough to avert climate disaster. The unfortunate reality of the political status quo is that a few college students lobbying in their spare time will accomplish little against the tremendous influence fossil fuel companies hold over politics and economics. By contrast, the divestment movement forwards a strong political and moral statement against fossil fuel corporations, while increasing public aware­ness and discussion. It is long past time for Vassar College to join this movement.

While we appreciate the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC)’s consider­ation of our proposal for divestment, we have so far been denied the opportunity to argue our case in front of the full board of trustees. The Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) has not yet voted on our updated pro­posal, which in fact greatly differs from the one put forward in 2013. CIRC’s “consensus” against our updated proposal, to which President Hill refers, is misleading because of the current imbalanced composition of the Committee. CIRC is supposed to be composed of two stu­dents, two administrators, two faculty, and two alumnae. However, four administrators and a trustee sit on CIRC, while students’ voices are largely ignored. Despite this imbalance, CIRC’s decision was, in fact, hardly a consensus, bare­ly garnering a majority against our proposal. Neither CIRC, TIRC nor the board of trustees accurately represent the values of the Vassar community regarding this issue.

In regards to Vassar’s policy on divestment and fiduciary responsibility, it has been sug­gested that it is appropriate to divest only in cases of genocide. While we agree that cli­mate change does not represent deliberate killings of specific groups of people, they do have disproportionately disastrous effects on already-marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, low-income communities and indigenous groups. According to The Guard­ian, over 300,000 people each year already die just from climate related disasters such as extreme weather, food and water scarcity and climate change-induced violence. Unless we act soon, millions more will die as the climate destabilizes. We can no longer allow Vassar to support or profit from the crisis that will de­fine our generation.

We acknowledge the importance of chang­ing our consumption of greenhouse gases and the ability in some cases of shareholders to in­fluence companies’ policies. However, our ob­jection to fossil fuel corporations is their very existence. No amount of shareholder activism with a coal company, for example, will be able to change its business model away from ex­tracting coal, as it exists solely to profit from such extraction. We would have an extremely small say in the actions of enormous compa­nies, even if we should decide to take share­holder action. Finally, and perhaps most impor­tantly, as highlighted in a report by Northstar Asset Management, Inc. in 2013:

A major roadblock to working with compa­nies from within the shareholder framework is that Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) policy restricts shareholders from en­gaging with firms on operational issues. This does not allow shareholders to modify the business model or to engage with firms direct­ly on the problem of keeping oil reserves in the ground.

The fossil fuel divestment movement has, in fact, been one of the major factors in in­creasing awareness about climate change. Di­vestment was both discussed and acted upon during the Paris COP21 climate talks. Neverthe­less, it has been suggested that there are better ways for Divest VC student activists to spend their time, such as lobbying for a national car­bon tax. Though it’s claimed that fossil fuel divestment is ineffective, purely symbolic or may have no political impact, it seems that the school has belied their own argument against divestment wrong by the actions they have tak­en in response to our campaign. A perceptive observer will notice that, since the beginning of our efforts, Vassar has taken more steps to be environmentally friendly. In fact, we believe it is unlikely the school would be exploring the possibility of a carbon tax if it were not for the awareness that our campaign has raised in con­junction with others working towards environ­mental goals.

We would like to close by reiterating our appreciation for President Hill’s willingness to address and respond to this important issue, as well as her openness to discussion with our campaign. She has revealed herself to be our ally in many ways and we are grateful for that. Some of the trustees would eliminate divest­ment as an option and strategy entirely. Pres­ident Hill recognizes the validity and utility of divestment in certain circumstances, though she does not yet see the wisdom in applying this tactic to the climate crisis. However, we believe that through our efforts we can contin­ue to make it clear that the fossil fuel industry is sufficiently morally heinous to warrant di­vestment. President Hill has recognized divest­ment as valid in situations involving genocide. Given the disproportionate impacts of climate change on people of color, women and cultures dependent on vulnerable ecosystems, climate change and fossil fuel extraction can be defined as genocidal acts. We fervently hope President Hill uses her influence to push the trustees to divest. As students at Vassar we have the right to influence our community, and hope that the trustees will listen to our voices as an integral part of their responsibility to the college. The urgency of climate change requires us to take action on as many fronts as possible. We laud the environmental efforts Vassar is undertak­ing, and stress that divestment from fossil fu­els is just one necessary part of our continued work to combat climate change.

Sincerely,

The Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign

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