BFP editor Aki Soga made an incorrect assumption in an editorial he wrote regarding a decision not to divest UVM’s endowment of 200 fossil fuel companies. The decision was made by the UVM Board of Trustees’ Investment Subcommittee (ISC), and the assumption made was that those supporting the divestment proposal lacked the financial analysis needed to address the ISC’s concerns. This could not be farther from the truth.
Student Climate Culture, the group spearheading the proposal, has been addressing divestment from both a moral and financial perspective for over a year now, and our research into investment returns, diversification, etc., is partially responsible for the level of support our proposal has received from the UVM community. The 3-member ISC simply didn’t allow us to make our case.
There are two components to divestment: whether we Should, and whether we Can. The Should is simple: (1) It is immoral to wreck the planet, and therefore it is immoral to profit from that wreckage. (2) An institution isn’t taking climate change seriously unless it’s willing to confront its cause. (3) Last fall, a study published by the University of Oxford found that the indirect impacts of divestment, including restrictive legislation and increased capital costs, pose serious threats to the medium- and long-term profitability of fossil fuel production. So if it’s wrong for corporations to wreck the planet, and we’re capable of stopping them, we’re obligated to do so. These are moral truths; renowned ethicists like Peter Singer have written essays affirming divestment on these grounds.
The other component, whether we Can, is complicated, but not impossible. A number of divestment-related studies have recently been published by well-respected financial analysts, including S&P Capital IQ, the Tellus Institute, Morgan Stanley Capital International, and more. Each analysis finds the same conclusion: If done with prudence, divestment has a neutral or positive impact on endowment returns, with miniscule increases in portfolio risk.
Because the available research says definitively that we Should and Can divest from fossil fuel stocks, the UVM community has rallied around the proposal. The Student Government Association, Graduate Student Senate, Faculty Senate and Staff Council are the four representative bodies for the University; they report directly to President Sullivan, ensuring University policy is in line with community wishes. We’ve made presentations to each of these bodies, and each one subsequently recommended that UVM divest from 200 specific fossil fuel corporations. No resolution has garnered less than 72% support, and there was unanimous support from Staff Council. Furthermore, we’ve collected about 3,000 petition signatures affirming our proposal, almost one third of the student body. UVM historians would be hard-pressed to find an issue that has received the degree of support fossil fuel divestment has, and to dismiss the issue as quickly as the ISC did is an insult to the community.
These investors, on conference call from their offices in Boston and New York during UVM’s winter break, made no attempt to learn why the UVM community spoke so strongly in favor of divestment. Citing “a lack of institutional consensus” within UVM, the three investors exchanged opinions for a short while, and ultimately decided for themselves that UVM will not pursue divestment.
We’re not surprised by their profoundly undemocratic behavior, nor are we disheartened by their decision. We expected them to ignore the community’s stated interests, and they did. Yet, the divestment issue is not over. Now that we’ve run the bureaucratic gauntlet and met a brick wall, we need everyone’s help in tearing it down.
The sum total of the voices of the UVM community, both direct (i.e. petition signatures) and indirect (i.e. resolutions passed by each representative body), should have more weight in deciding UVM’s future than three faceless investors. If you agree with that, please write President Sullivan a letter requesting that he stand up for the community he’s supposed to be leading, and put divestment back on the agenda. If you want to get involved personally, “Like” “UVM Divest Now” on Facebook to get updates, and mark your calendar for the next time our Trustees meet, February 7 - 8. Let’s greet them with open arms and offer a second chance to get divestment right.