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Unity College Board Of Trustees Votes To Divest From Fossil Fuels

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"Unity College Board Of Trustees Votes To Divest From Fossil Fuels"

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by Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College

We are running out of time.  While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.

The way forward is clear, though for many confrontation-averse academics the path seems impassable.  It requires action that is unnatural to the scientifically initiated:  to fight to regain the territory illegitimately occupied by the climate change deniers.

Every day that we avoid taking action represents additional emissions, and additional infrastructure that is dependent on our fossil fuel based economy.  In our zeal to be collegial, we engage with those who are paid by vested interests to argue that our Earth is not in crisis.  When these individuals demonize public investment in alternative energy, we fail to point out how the oil industry benefited from significant taxpayer support in its infancy and continues to receive government subsidies today.  We also sidestep the thorny issue of how oil and coal, in particular, fund large-scale organized opposition efforts to deny legitimate science, winning the battle for climate change public opinion with slogans, junk science, and money.

While there is much uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns, one thing is very clear:  Our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond 5oC average global warming by 2100.   This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization and science shows us that the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium.  I don’t know how the stakes could get any higher.

Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers.  As educators, we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions.  Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror twenty years from now.  What would you see?  Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe?  For me, the alternative is unacceptable.

Those within higher education must now do something they have largely avoided at all costs: confront the policy makers who refuse to accept scientific reality. We must be willing to lead by example. Like the colleges and universities of the 1980’s that disinvested from apartheid South African interests – and successfully pressured the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system – we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios. We must divest.

The colleges and universities of this nation have billions invested in fossil fuels. Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical.  The Terrifying Math of the 350.org campaign is based on realistic, reviewed science. Moreover, in our country it is clear that economic pressure gets results where other means fail. If we are to honor our commitment to the future, divestment is not optional.  This is especially true for Unity College, where Sustainability Science, as developed by the U.S. National Academy of Science, guides our academic mission.

I am proud to be a part of the 350.org program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees for their willingness to make this affiliation.  Indeed, the Trustees have been on the path of divestment for over five years.  The Trustees have looked at the College’s finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand.   I can think of no stronger statement about the mission of Unity College.

Our college community will lead by fearless action.  We will confront policy makers who continue to deny the existence of climate change.  We will encourage those who work in higher education to bravely step out from behind manicured, taxpayer funded hedges, and do what needs to be done.   We will not equivocate, and we will meet those who have been misled by climate change denial in their communities.

The time is long overdue for all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in employing a destructive business model.  Because of its infrastructure and enormous economic clout, fossil fuel corporations could pump trillions into the development of alternative energy. Government subsidies and stockholder shares could be used constructively to move these corporations to behave responsibly.

Higher education is the crown jewel of the United States system of education, and it remains the envy of the world.  Higher education has always been dedicated to the highest standards of honesty and integrity.  If our nation’s colleges and universities will not take a stand now, who will?

Stephen Mulkey is President of Unity College in Unity, Maine. You can find out more about 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour here.

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3 Responses to Unity College Board Of Trustees Votes To Divest From Fossil Fuels

  1. Mark E says:

    This is a GREAT gesture; I marched for S African divestment and plan to do my bit for this too…. but just out of curiousity I would be very interested to know in real terms how much Unity Colleges decision changes anything on their books? Is this watershed campus position statement more than symbolic? I do not mean to diss it… just that if there is a substantive financial impact to their finances the import of their act as fodder for my own lobbying is magnified by several orders of magnitude.

    • While we have been on this path for some time, our renewed commitment is to seek zero percentage of fossil fuels in our portfolio. I have a richer discussion of this on the college website . The bottom line is that under the current average market prices and conditions, we we are certain that we will perform better than the market average. This means that we are meeting our fiduciary responsibility in an ethical manner.

      There can be little doubt that prices for fossil fuels will go up, and thus the obscene profits of these corporations have the potential to grow even bigger. Under these circumstances the financial industry would say that a divested portfolio is “underperforming.” What does this word mean? Is it acceptable to invest in African blood diamonds in order to avoid
      “underperformance?” I think not. There is fundamentally no difference between this and investment in fossil fuels. This language and attitude betrays an embedded acceptance of an ethic of profits at any price.

      I reject the notion that divestment is too complicated or onerously difficult. If an institution is willing to make the effort to manage its investments to maximize return, it takes no more effort to simultaneously bias its portfolio away from any significant return from fossil fuel corporations.

      We must demand higher ethical standards from our universities and colleges. It is indefensible that an institution dedicated to the proposition of the renewal of civilization would simultaneously invest in its destruction.

  2. BillD says:

    Great statement! Perhaps the era when fossil fuel companies and their supporters can just make stuff up without consequences is over.

    Mark–I don’t know anything specific about the Unity College endowment. Persumably they own a lot of stock and the percentage of energy stocks might be similar to the energy sector’s part of the S&P 500. Certainly, they can find other investments and probably won’t take a direct hit. Nevertheless, this move shows foresight and leadership. If you want to be an energy company in the future, you might well want to move away from fossil fuels and put more investment into renewables. You might also stop supporting disinformation about science and start engaging in the conversation and debate about what we should do, knowing about the costs and risks of climate change.