Finally a step in the right direction: fossil fuel divestment

November 29, 2018

Finally. After over five years of petitions, presentations, resolutions, committees, panel discussions, protests, more committees and more presentations we are able to celebrate a step in the right direction: The trustees approved new policies regarding our investments in fossil fuels in light of the climate crisis. It’s not what students had hoped and campaigned for. It’s not a proud press release claiming leadership. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong: it is only one small step for mankind, but it is one giant leap for Brandeis’ Board of Trustees.

Climate activists, especially the students of Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ) and members of Faculty Against the Climate Threat (FACT) should be proud. After years of advocacy, we have now gone from nothing to a set of policies approved by our trustees that clearly link climate change to the need to remove fossil fuel investments from our endowment. This is a sign that the trustees are beginning to understand that business as usual is no longer an option. The new policies raise questions: What is the length of a fund’s “typical life cycle?” Are we talking two years or ten years? What exactly happens three years from now? More work needs to be done.

Of course this modest set of policies is not the bold action and courageous leadership that we urgently need as the alarm bells have begun to ring ever more loudly; on Oct. 8, the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report told us we have twelve years to address the crisis. On Nov. 23, the newest National Climate Assessment alerted us to the fact that the U.S. economy must anticipate suffering significant losses within decades. In light of the “Hothouse Earth” study, Hurricane Michael or the wildfires in California, a few modest policies are clearly far too little, far too late.

But fossil fuel divestment was aimed first and foremost at “starting the conversation,” and there is no question that the trustees have engaged in serious conversations about climate change over the past year. That in itself is important. When President Ron Liebowitz spoke at his first Brandeis faculty meeting in fall 2016, he told the assembled faculty that he’d like to begin by improving trust between faculty and trustees and moving us forward on divestment. Wednesday’s announcement proves that he succeeded in doing both. He deserves to be commended for that. At first, the trustees had shown zero interest in fossil fuel divestment. Complete silence met the Exploratory Report on Fossil Fuel Divestment submitted in spring 2015 that had taken a committee over a year and a half to assemble.

A first meeting about divestment with a small group of faculty, students and trustees in March 2016, chaperoned by Interim President Lisa Lynch, resulted only in the acknowledgement that “we agree to disagree.” In meetings in spring 2018, students and faculty kept highlighting the climate issue as a major social justice issue, while trustees focused almost exclusively on whether or not removing fossil fuel investments from our holdings would come with any financial cost. We have come a long way!

Despite growing concerns about fossil fuel investments around the globe (entire countries like Ireland have committed to divest!) and the expectation that such investments must become stranded assets in light of the accelerating climate crisis, the trustees still chose not to embrace full divestment—not even as a long-term goal. That’s disappointing. Just as disappointing as when the Massachusetts House was incapable of replicating a perfect Senate energy bill, which would have turned Massachusetts into a climate leader this past July. The House leadership was too deep in the pockets of fossil fuel interests. The fossil fuel lobby and their lackeys in the current administration in Washington have wreaked havoc on our environmental protections from day one of the Trump presidency. Not to mention the withdrawal from the Paris Accord. That’s what happens when reasonable voices stay silent. Universities need to step up.

We know that to continue to want to profit from fossil fuels is shameful if not criminal, because climate change kills. We know this is the social justice issue of our time. Our trustees missed the opportunity for bold leadership, but they did not say no to divestment either. They compromised. They are learning with us. We know learning is not equivalent to checking boxes. It takes time and patience. We will all keep learning because new students will keep teaching us as they arrive on our campus that we are laying an ever heavier burden of climate disasters at their feet. Now we have a beginning that acknowledges our common responsibility. This is an important first step in the right direction. Let’s keep moving forward!

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