National student movement calls for fossil fuel divestment
Marked by wildfires, drought, Super-Storm Sandy, and the warmest average annual temperature ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 2012 was a year of weather extremes in the U.S., and in 2013, students at colleges and universities around the country are mobilizing to counter what they believe is the cause.
At over 150 campuses nationwide, students are calling for the removal of all fossil fuel companies from their institution’s investment portfolios, according to a speech delivered in December by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Using previous models of divestment for social change, students aim to send a message to fossil fuel companies, whom they see as contributors to a changing climate.
“This is nothing new,” said Kevin Kimble, Chief Financial Officer at Central Oregon Community College. “There is a history of the idea of socially conscious investing.”
In 2008 colleges and universities in the U.S. held over $400 billion in endowment funds, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. These endowments are used as investments that earn returns to help pay for different programs and scholarships.
The COCC Foundation, which acts independently from the college as a 501(c) 3, currently holds an endowment of $10 million, according to the foundation’s Director of Operations, Jim Weaver. During the 2011-2012 school year, earnings from the endowment contributed $180,000, over 20 percent of the total $800,000 in scholarship money awarded to students at COCC last year.
“Raising dollars for the scholarships is central to what we do,” said Weaver. “We have a responsibility to the students.”
To maximize investment returns, the foundation’s fund is handled by the money management firm Commonfund, which generally shows higher returns than other such firms, but does not offer socially responsible investment options, according to Weaver.
“Right now we do not have control of the investments. We do not have that as an option,” said Weaver. “It’s not that we could not (divest), it would require a significant change. We would have to find another investor that is more socially responsible. That might mean lower returns,” Weaver said.
Unity College in Portland, Maine, which focuses on environmental sustainability, has decided to take that risk. On Nov. 5, 2012, the school’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to divest the college endowment from fossil fuels, according to a written statement put out by the college.
“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,” said Unity President Stephan Mulkey, in the statement.
Senior Instructor for Natural Resources at Oregon State University Cascades, Matt Shinderman, also sees some merit in the movement.
“I am a strong proponent of this kind of campaign that starts at a small level and goes outward,” said Shinderman. “Universities taking a leadership role in the world is important.”
Shinderman, who is also the Program Lead of the Sustainability double degree at OSU-Cascades knows the importance of striving towards cleaner energy.
“Right now the global economy is completely dependent on a limited resource,” Shinderman said, “this is fundamentally unsustainable.”
As the debate over energy and climate continues, only time will tell what sort of impact this latest campaign will have.
“My hope,” said Weaver, “is that in the current political climate, both sides can move away from extremes and toward a common ground.”