Andrew, thank you so much for your very well written editorial, but I fundamentally disagree. Divestment is a crucial step BU must take — as should every other major institution with an endowment — and is ineffective when privileged institutions like our own put our short-term concerns higher on our list of priorities than our long-term concerns. If the Board of Trustees stays true to their criteria for divestment, Boston University will use our respected place in society to save students’ future well being and the economy of Boston from the threats of climate change. I appreciate your logical and cautious thinking, but don’t think you understand the urgency of the issue at hand. Furthermore, you forget the power of social movements, for which without, half of our population would not be able to vote.
You cannot deny the power and influence of the environmental movement. Every person who breathes oxygen appreciates what our planet and its ecosystems do for us. Additionally, every college campus has at least 10 different environmental clubs and a growing number of environment-related majors and courses. Divestment is contributing to this environmental movement by rallying all kinds of people behind the very effective symbol of putting your money where your mouth is. Just this week, there are divestment events, speakers and protests across the nation. Last Thursday, MIT held a debate on divestment. On Sunday, there was a march at BC to demand that their administration let the Climate Justice at BC group form as a student group. All this week, Harvard is hosting Harvard Heat Week to pressure the institution to divest. And, on Tuesday, April 13, Bill McKibben from 350.org is coming to speak at BU to bring the discussion of climate justice to our campus. People of every background, age, major and expertise are coming together on the grounds of something we all have in common: an appreciation for our planet.
As already explained many times, through the combustion of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases, we are each day worsening the impacts of climate change. Energy and energy companies are not bad; fossil fuels have made it possible for our society to modernize, but now we know better. Energy companies that fund campaigns to misinform the public and slow political and technological progress in order to protect their profits are bad. We like to call these companies fossil fuel companies rather than energy companies because they do not have energy stability and security in mind for our future and thus do not deserve to be called energy companies. If they were truly energy companies, they would have supported a carbon tax and the Kyoto Protocol. The potential for greenhouse gas emissions to bounce back as explained in the article would only further prove how profit-focused these companies are, disregarding the purpose of the policies put in place and disregarding society’s safety. The fact that they hindered political will tells us that there is a disconnect here between science and politics. A social movement led by divested institutions to pressure politicians is the next best step.
Divestment can seem complicated at first, but let me explain. Considering how the stock market works, as soon as fossil fuel stocks are sold, another investor immediately buys them up. Clearly, divestment does not intend to impact this industry through the stock market. Divestment makes change through the symbolism of a rather simple step that makes a significantly larger statement to society that we will no longer support industries that refuse to change with us. Divestment pressures our political system. If every school in the Boston area were to divest, Massachusetts’ representatives would not be able to ignore the demands for a carbon tax, safe natural gas extraction policy, more funding to fix leaking natural gas pipelines and exhausted public transportation, solar and wind subsidies and the banning of tar sands oil. It would wake up the nation by proving how badly citizens want justice for their futures.
The risks mentioned in the article regarding BU’s finances are less significant than one might think; 2.6 percent of BU’s revenues come from returns from our endowment. It is estimated the fossil fuel industry investments take up 6 percent of a typical college endowment’s returns. Six percent of 2.6 percent is 0.156 percent meaning that this is the percentage of our returns-generating endowment that would be reallocated to other industries. A change in returns due to reallocating these stocks would be so minor that it would increase or decrease returns by only about a one tenth of a percentage point. 0.1 percent (worst case scenario changes in investment returns) x 2.6 percent (percentage of revenue generated from endowment) x $1.7 billion (BU’s total yearly revenue) = $44,200. That’s not so risky in the grand scheme of things, and that’s only the worse case scenario in which one assumes that a portfolio without fossil fuels decreases returns by 0.1 percent.
I will admit that I know little about shareholder advocacy, but from what I do know, BU does not have a large enough endowment to hold enough investments in any one fossil fuel company to fundamentally change their business model.
So is divestment effective? Nelson Mandela believed divestment was so crucial to ending Apartheid that when he was released from prison, he first went to UC Berkeley to thank the students for their work on the Apartheid divestment campaign before even visiting Washington D.C. I realize that Apartheid and climate change are a little difficult to compare: one was an undeniably awful discrimination against a race and the other is an abstract understanding of how just temperature change could lead to the fall of humanity. But don’t worry about the abstractness. Worry about the frontline communities experiencing high rates of cancer, the developing island nations like Vanuatu that emit 0.0000000038 percent of the emissions the U.S. does each year and yet are being hit by disastrous hurricanes and the decline in access to drinkable water.
What’s the risk of a symbolic statement that could potentially catapult political action and real results? A variability in our schools revenues by 0.0026 percent. The benefits? A seat at the table, great PR, the title of a global leader, the legitimization of our sustainability initiatives and the potential to make real change happen. Should BU be on the forefront of the movement to protect our future by divesting? 75 percent of BU’s students say yes.
Rachel Eckles, CAS ‘17