Carbon neutrality ≠ political neutrality: The case for divestment

Chalk drawings from the 2020 Climate Awareness Week, hosted by Vassar Greens. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Smart ’22 via @vassar.greens on Instagram

In 2020, Vassar reaffirmed its desire to become carbon-neutral by 2030 with a revision of their Climate Action Plan. There is one area, however, not mentioned in the revised plan: divestment from fossil fuels. We acknowledge the difficulty from a financial standpoint, as divestment will require years of research and much larger involvement from the whole of Vassar in their investing portfolio. The latter includes techniques like adding a student voice to the Board of Trustees and increasing transparency from our financial investors as to where our money is going. Nonetheless, we believe the Board of Trustees must pursue these options because divestment is essential to mitigating the climate crisis and entirely possible given the examples set by other colleges. Just as well, continuing our investment in fossil fuels is indefensible with the current arguments for their use. Therefore, we ask the Board of Trustees to begin the divestment process and add it to their carbon-neutrality goals to protect our future.

Divestment from fossil fuels is not merely an interest of Vassar students. It is a necessity as we, a global community, move away from nonrenewable and damaging energy sources toward renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry keeps us dependent upon a finite supply of resources, meaning that divestment is inevitable. It also harms the well-being of our communities. Each day, approximately 10,000 people die due to air pollution. The average global temperature has already risen by one degree Celsius and is on track to increase. If this pattern continues, the impacts on the global community will be immense: Biodiversity will decrease, food prices will skyrocket, health will be threatened and violent weather will increase, just to name a few consequences. The Board has previously stated that it “believes that the endowment of the college exists solely to support the mission of the college.” If Vassar’s mission is, as they say, to “make accessible ‘the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education,’” we are all for using the endowment to make that happen. Yet, we are hesitant to support the endowment and, by proxy, the College if its mission is to support an antiquated industry that has been proven to irreparably harm the environment and warm the planet. As Vassar refuses to divest, the message that it sends is clear: Investing in fossil fuels is permitted under our mission statement. This sentiment is contradictory to Vassar’s overall mission, however, as iterated by Vassar’s Climate Action Plan. Why is the College acting in opposition to its promise to the community? As a higher educational institution, Vassar should have the goal of investing in future generations in all aspects of student life. Is this the future Vassar believes in? 

As an institution, Vassar prides itself as a leader in sustainability. Recent plans for the building of the Inn and Institute, expected to be among the most sustainable buildings in the Hudson Valley, demonstrate Vassar’s willingness to invest in projects that will distinguish itself from peer colleges. Still, it seems unaware of how sustained the advocacy for divestment has been throughout eight years of student work. Frankly, Vassar is falling short of its own expectations of leadership in higher education. Peer institutions that have pledged action regarding divestment include Barnard, Wesleyan, Smith, Bryn Mawr and Middlebury. Barnard has agreed to divest from all fossil fuel companies that deny climate science. Wesleyan has vowed to divest from all fossil fuel investments by the end of the decade. Smith is beginning a phaseout of all current investments with fossil-fuel specific managers in endowment. Middlebury has a phased approach that halts all new investments in the fossil fuel industry. And finally, schools like Bryn Mawr have agreed to initialize a divestment process by engaging in more detailed research among the Board of Trustees. Indeed, many of these schools have not pledged to fully divest from fossil fuels. What matters to us is that they have considered the possibilities, and they are taking some form of action. Progress is possible, and at this point, with several examples of what the road to divestment might look like, we are asking the College to at least do something.

While we have established that divestment, or at least more conscientious investment, is possible, the main reason Vassar cites for not divesting is that the institution cannot openly take stances on social issues. However, we would like to challenge the very idea of an apolitical investment. Money is inextricably tied to systems of power, so any purchase or investment inherently involves supporting an industry and what they stand for. We say that consumers can “vote with their dollars,” and with our endowment, Vassar has quite a few votes to cast. But where to cast them? If a decision to divest from fossil fuels is read as a political decision to support climate action, then a decision to continue investing in fossil fuels should be read as a decision to support the status quo and blatantly ignore the exceeding urgency of climate change. Both decisions are inherently political, but not equal. Divestment strives to make a positive difference while continued investment actively bolsters the power of a destructive juggernaut of an industry responsible for devastating our planet beyond repair. What’ll it be, Vassar? We may pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, but until we divest from fossil fuels, there’s still coal and oil on our hands. 

This article was written by members of Vassar Greens.

2 Comments

  1. Other colleges and universities with some degree of divestment commitment are: American University, Brevard College, California institute for the Arts, California State University, College of the Atlantic, College of the Marshall Islands, Cornell, Foothill – De Anza Community College District, George Washington University, Green Mountain College, Hampshire College, Humboldt State University, John Hopkins University, Lewis and Clark College, Pacific School of Religion, San Francisco State University, Seattle University, Stanford, Sterling College, Syracuse, The New School, Unity College, University of California, University of Dayton, University of Maine system, University of Maine at Presque Isle, and University of Massachusetts.

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