Divest Now: Wesleyan University’s Institutional Obligation to Address Climate Injustice

Written by Ben Silverstone ‘22 and Ernest Braun ‘22 on behalf of WesDivest, Climate Action GroupWesDems, Sunrise, and a coalition of other sustainability groups, this guest post addresses climate injustice and what Wesleyan must do now to ensure our planet’s future:

“12 years from now, in 2031, Wesleyan will celebrate its bicentennial anniversary. In 2030, the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns that we will reach environmental tipping points that will speed up the pace of the climate crisis. The catastrophic warming resulting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels which has already begun to ravage our planet will be irreversible for millennia. As the students, faculty, and administration reflect upon Wesleyan’s accomplishments over the past 200 years, perhaps they will wonder what Wesleyan may look like in another 200 years, or even in 50. Unless we take drastic actions to reduce our emissions now, we already know the answer to that question.

We are WesDivest. We formed to urge the administration to divest our endowment from the fossil fuel industry, to commit to renewable energy and reduced consumption, and to lead by example in the fight for the futures of our generation. We formed because all of human civilization is implicated in the same challenge for the next decade: to stop greenhouse gas emissions before we make the planet uninhabitable. With this challenge in mind, any institution that ignores the reality of climate change is contributing to its own demise and doing a moral disservice to humanity. Therefore, all people who are invested in Wesleyan’s enduring success – and that of its students  – should seriously consider divestment from fossil fuels and begin building a more sustainable future.

Read the rest of this guest post after the jump:

Climate Justice is Social Justice

Climate change was once touted as the great equalizer of humanity; it will destroy us all regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic class. The further we push into our era of environmental reckoning, the clearer we see that this is far from the truth.  We have seen from the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, from the mistreatment and neglect that followed Hurricane Maria, and from numerous other climate disasters, that vulnerable communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities suffer disproportionately. Globally, this injustice is no different. As the developed world harnesses energy from depleted natural resources to fuel our economies, island nations in Oceania such as Vanuatu face catastrophic flooding due to sea level rise. Numerous African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian nations are facing heat waves, drought, and food shortages due to rising temperatures and ecological collapse. Right now people have nowhere to go, and the number of refugees claimed by the climate crisis is rising.

As a community who, as its mission statement says, values “boldness,” “practical idealism,” and “generosity of spirit,” turning our backs would be hypocritical. There is nothing practical or ideal about our contribution to the climate crisis. As an institution of higher learning insulated from its most horrific effects (for now), delaying decisive action while the emissions apocalypse swallows up the rest of humanity is the epitome of unchecked privilege.

A Solvable Problem

The path to systemic change lays right under our noses. According to a study run by the Carbon Majors Database in 2017, only 100 fossil fuel corporations are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Among them are ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, and Chevron: multinational investor-owned companies. These corporations’ actions alone are egregious enough to warrant complete divestment. Look no further than ExxonMobil’s recent scandal, which uncovered the corporation’s efforts since the 1970s to lobby against international and local movements to shrink emissions. In addition, they buried climate research in order to undermine public consensus on climate change for 40 years: perhaps the most consequential act of deception in human history. ExxonMobil is hardly the only deceptive fossil fuel company. In fact, this large-scale disinformation campaign continues to be an industry-wide effort. Moreover, many of these companies hide behind “responsible” investments in biofuel or undeveloped “climate change-reversing” technologies such as artificial carbon sinks while they continue their horrific exploitation of natural resources, natural spaces, and indigenous peoples. Our current presidential administration has made that process even easier.

And there’s more. We urge readers to do their own research and come to WesDivest teach-ins; there is too much to fit in a single paragraph. We have seen communities living near highways who suffer disproportionately from inhaling emissions. We have seen communities near oil fields suffer from contaminated drinking water and fracking-related earthquakes. We have seen oil spills destroy entire ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. All of these crises are linked to the activity of fossil fuel corporations. Their profits come at the expense of the health of real communities, both on a local and global scale.

Our economy treats natural resources as infinite, a miscalculation that pads corporations’ speculative value at the expense of the natural world, the true source of lasting wealth. With civilization at stake, it seems the crash of a global market that revolves around the extraction of depleted natural resources is inevitable. But the fossil fuel industry should be held accountable for its catastrophic effects on humanity and for their morally reprehensible actions now. They don’t deserve our tuition money.

The Administration’s Responsibility

Wesleyan cannot pretend to be an institution that cares about the world while participating in its destruction.

By investing Wesleyan’s endowment in the fossil fuel industry, the Board of Trustees neglects its own objective. We believe it is impossible for the board to honestly commit itself to our well-being and success while also contributing to unprecedented environmental and geopolitical issues which, if unaddressed, will dim the futures of everyone in our generation.

It is time that the board recalibrate its understanding of what is good for students. It must recognize climate change as the most pressing issue that students of this generation face, and that its mission obligates it to take the most aggressive measures against that threat. Investment in the fossil fuel industry must be considered one of those policies which is never good for students. It makes no sense to be invested in a future that isn’t sustainable, a future which hinders the success of Wesleyan students and humanity at large.

During the March 1st open meeting between students and the Board of Trustees, our current Chair of the Board, Donna Morea ’76, told us that “we are all dependent on fossil fuels,” implying that this dependence justifies remaining invested in this destructive industry, or at least that our own dependence would undermine the impact of our divestment.

The world does not have time for such arguments. Given the undeniably catastrophic effects of fossil fuel use, the current ubiquity of fossil fuels that Morea identifies is precisely why we need to do everything possible to address it. That is why divestment from fossil fuels and moving towards renewables are crucial pillars of our goal.

Divestment is an Effective – and Necessary – Component

The Wesleyan administration has a mandate to address climate change – for the world, for its students, and for its own institutional integrity. In the aforementioned Argus article, President Michael Roth ’78 seems to fundamentally agree: “I would have to see,” he says, “that [divestment] would make a material difference in our effort to become a better steward of the environment and that it’s not just symbolic.” He very much acknowledges the need for effort. His trepidation about symbolic action, however, must be rethought entirely.

President Roth feeds into a false dichotomy of symbolism and impact. Symbolism itself has a crucial impact. The “symbolism” of a Wesleyan divestment would add momentum to a much larger economic transition that is necessary to hold off the worst of the climate crisis.

We find ourselves staring down a critical twelve-year period. In order to have even a chance of stopping the harm we are currently causing through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the entire world will need to begin a rapid transition. The fossil fuel industry and its extractionist attitude must lose their central places in our economy. This isn’t an ideological preference; it is a scientifically ordained necessity. Divestment would embolden students at other schools to push their own administrations toward climate justice. It would serve as an example for those administrations, and help set a new standard for what is expected of educational institutions. Such a collective shift among institutions of higher learning would not be ignored by other types of institutions or by our broader economy.

Furthermore, President Roth has played a role in a number of Wesleyan divestments, such as from industries profiting off the Iraq War (a conflict that oil companies have benefitted massively from), South African Apartheid, and even from coal – a fossil fuel! It is time that oil giants join the ranks of egregious institutions that Wesleyan should play no part in funding.

We Are the Generation of Action

President Roth also states that divestment may not “have a benefit beyond making us feel better about ourselves.” Let us be clear: We do not care how the administration feels about itself. For our generation, the fight to stop fossil fuel companies from destroying Earth and the futures of its inhabitants has never been about peace of mind.

Our vision for Wesleyan is about real, tangible change. The effects of climate change are felt right now across the globe, specifically by vulnerable and marginalized communities whose pleas have been ignored by the powerful. It affects our university, our towns, our planet. In question is nothing less than our future, the future of our economy and industry, and the very existence of life as we know it. Given the Wesleyan administration’s commitment to its students – both present and future – it has an undeniable responsibility to address each and every facet of this issue. This includes not only divestment, which is needed to kickstart the economic shifts necessary to protect our planet from further damage, but also bold commitments to renewable energy and reduced consumption.

When we make demands for divestment and sustainable infrastructure in order to address climate injustice, it is important to stress that generational differences matter. Our generation must be heard. Who does President Roth refer to when he says “us?” The “us” of Wesleyan’s administration are of a generation that sees climate justice as a topic that can be discussed, debated, delayed. We, the students, the generation who will live far into the era of the climate crisis, cannot afford to see it that way. We want to inherit a world that has not been polluted and exploited beyond recognition. We want to explain to our grandchildren that we took action when the climate crisis was still partially avoidable. To the Board’s generation, who is passing us the baton: listen to our voices now or we will raise them.

If you or your student group have something to say, and want a platform to the student and alumni community, please email us at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org!