In the face of bureaucratic impediments from subcommittees of the Board of Trustees, student activists from Divest VC turned to student government as they pursued institutional reforms aimed at environmentally responsible investment. The VSA Council will present the Fossil Fuels Divestment Campaign Resolution to the student body for referendum on April 5 at the top of the spring elections ballot.
The proposed resolution recommends the Board of Trustees to pledge to limit, and eventually withhold, all investment from companies that engage in the extraction of fossil fuels without regard for the environmental impacts of their economic activities. If passed by a simple majority of students, the referendum will uphold the VSA Council’s unanimous vote for the resolution and put pressure on the Board of Trustees to reconsider its refusal to debate this issue during its full proceedings.
The potential impact of the resolution differs from resolutions proposed in the org’s prior five years of activism. Brendan Wirth ’19 explained, “By having the referendum be voted on by students, it shows that our campaign is not just a small group. Even though we are small in number compared to the general populace at Vassar, this is an initiative that most people support”.
Despite the disparity in commitment between campaign members and the general student body, student activism has built a collective stance on fossil fuels divestment. McClellan urged students to speak out and vote. She explained, “Getting that very high statistic of students supporting the referendum will be a powerful thing to show to the Trustees and the administration, to show that this is how our campus feels and that you really need to listen to us”.
VSA President Ramy Abbady ’16 corroborated, “When VSA reps attended the Seven Sisters Conference at Barnard in November, there was a presentation from the Seven Sisters Divestment Coalition that was very thorough and persuasive. This issue is so much bigger than just Vassar and I really admire the students in the divestment group.” When envisioned as a moral statement against the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, the resolution implicitly condemns all investment in fossil fuel companies. McClellan and Wirth agree that these types of moral statements keep Vassar in the vanguard of social advocacy.
President Catharine Hill suggests that it would be more constructive and effective to approach fossil fuels divestment as a political issue that lies beyond the scope of educational institutions. She wrote in an emailed statement, “I agree that getting good policies will involve changing politicians’ minds. But, I’m not that optimistic that divestment by educational institutions would do this. In fact, I worry a bit that it would just be ignored, or even worse criticized.”
Instead, Hill proposed an alternative channel for institutional reform. Hill explained, “I would rather see everyone in our community who cares about these issues getting involved in local, state and national elections, making it clear to those running what their views are on these issues.” The political process of the United States, which could stretch over 18 months for presidential candidates, allows ample time for debate and the inclusion of fossil fuels divestment in political debates.
Substituting the political process for immediate action at Vassar poses its own risks. Professor of Philosophy Jeffrey Seidman noted, “Climate change is regarded as a ‘political’ issue in America only because one of the two major parties has made denying climate science an ideological requirement. But there is no room for reasonable, well-informed disagreement that climate change is real, that it is anthropogenic, that the consequences of failing to limit it to two degrees will likely be catastrophic for humanity and the planet, and that doing so will require keeping around 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground.”
Wirth and McClellan both expressed the hope that student opinion will support VC Divest’s argument against the Administration and Trustees, who have not shown the resolution kindness. The Campus Investor Responsibility Committee and Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee refused to move the resolution from the subcommittees to the full Board of Trustees and President Hill wrote an open letter against it.
Wirth commented, “It kind of infuriates me because Vassar brands itself as a residential college that cares about all students, inclusiveness and providing a welcome space for everyone– except when you want to change what the administration is doing, in which case they don’t want to hear it.” When asked for the root cause of the administration’s reaction to this issue, Wirth posited, “It really comes from a space of privilege; these administrators know that they have power over students and it comes from this power dynamic that they just take advantage of.”
McClellan corroborated, “Though we have had meetings with them, though we haven’t been totally ignored, we just keep arguing the same points with them over and over. We know we are not going to convince them just by talking about it, because they refuse to listen. They refuse to listen to student opinions about both our future at Vassar and our future on this planet.”
On the contrary, Professor Seidman believed that the Board of Trustees engages in conversation with students about divestment from a reasonable position. Seidman pointed out that Vassar College’s investment decisions would be unstable, or at least very weak, if the Board of Trustees responded to every conceivable injustice with a divestment resolution. The burden of proof consequently remains with the VC Divest members to demonstrate that fossil fuels divestment targets companies that commit flagrant and unusual injustices.
Wirth offers an argument that positions divestment against South African apartheid as a precedent for fossil fuels divestment. He reported, “Divestment has really opened my eyes to how climate change is not an isolated issue. People who are already marginalized and oppressed are going to feel the effects first. This is a culmination of basically all forms of oppression. They are all linked, with climate change as the epicenter of all this. That’s not to say that other factors are at play for other forms of oppression, but climate change is going to be what dominates the 21st century and the centuries beyond it if we don’t act now.”
Although there is disagreement about its benefits, the Divestment Resolution is only a proposed method of dealing with climate change. Seidman reiterated the phenomenon’s significance, warning, “Catastrophic climate change would not be just another event in human history–it would be the upending of the stage on which that history is played.”
Not only are fossil-fuel companies without exception continuing to pursue business models which ignore any consideration of global “carbon budget” – with fantasy scenarios about carbon pricing, carbon sequestration and biofuels being their justification for practices certain to result in catastrophe – but these companies have been resistant to shareholders’ efforts of decades to get recognition of the need for transformative change toward a zero-net-emissions world.
Without these powerful producers being full participants in civilization’s climate-rescue mission, we will not succeed. If they won’t participate substantively and voluntarily, that must be mandated. Mandates will require that the citizenry have a broad-based understanding of the crisis, its causes and its culprits, so that the necessary political will can exist. Divestment’s purpose is to catalyze such an educational process, and it is the most effective means of accomplishing that.