March 6, 2014
Last December, following a 26-3 Student Assembly vote in favor of gradually divesting our $775 million endowment from the biggest carbon-emitting companies, The Spectator offered conditional support for the initiative. We applauded student efforts toward divestment, but questioned whether the December proposal was practicable enough to balance Hamilton’s fiduciary duties with its moral obligations. Following improvements to the divestment proposal and, on the heels of a supportive faculty voice vote, The Spectator now stands behind the Divestment Committee’s most recent letter to the Board of Trustees (see p. 7).
Before outlining the specific improvements made to the divestment proposal, it is worth discussing why the idea of divestment from major fossil fuel producers is important. It is now an accepted fact in the scientific community, from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to Richard Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, that the Earth’s land temperature has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years—and that human emission of greenhouse gasses is responsible for essentially all of this increase. In turn, a warmer Earth results in inundation of low-lying regions, increased species extinctions and disruptions to agriculture. While there is a wide variety of possible responses to this reality, divestment strives to put financial and social pressure on large carbon emitters to invest more in renewable energies and limit their production of the dirtiest fuels.
Admittedly, though, several reasonable objections to divestment exist. For one, selling off assets in a coal or oil company does not actually hurt a company’s financial position, so long as some other institution is willing to buy those assets. In addition, more specific to Hamilton, many question if it is worth putting our endowment at risk for uncertain societal gains. Our endowment pays for all kinds of positive social goods at our school, as The Spectator’s editorial praising alumni contributions noted last week, ranging from financial aid to student research. Citing concerns such as these, schools like Middlebury College and Harvard University have not moved forward in divesting their endowments.
Yet, in the aforementioned March 3 letter, Hamilton’s divestment campaign put forth a detailed and specific proposal that compromised in light of communal concerns. In response to the first concern, the proposal is less about having an immediate financial impact on fossil fuel companies and more, in the Committee’s words, about “being a leader among institutions taking steps to fight climate change.”
Most importantly, however, the Committee’s new letter outlined a gradual divestment from fossil fuels that only asked the endowment to divest its holdings in the dirtiest coal companies in the early years of the campaign—holdings that amount to less than a quarter of a percent of the total endowment. Over the course of ten years, moreover, the Committee called for a divestment in 180 specific companies in order from the most-polluting to the least-polluting. This moderate, well-researched and thoughtful approach represents a sincere attempt by students to meet the Board of Trustees halfway; it is idealistic in its expectations but realistic in its execution.
Despite our support for the March 3 divestment proposal, however, we also acknowledge the complex relationship between consumers and producers. It is the height of hypocrisy to call for divestment in coal and petroleum corporations while continuing to recklessly consume electricity, gasoline and disposable products. Thus, while the College’s endowment should begin a gradual divestment from fossil fuel producers, if these efforts are not coupled with campaigns to reduce our dependency on these companies in the first place, we are missing the forest for the trees.