Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns

Published: 6:34 PM GMT on May 02, 2015

Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns


Like many colleges and universities, students at the University of Michigan are advocating for the University to divest itself of fossil fuel assets. Specifically, Divest and Invest states “We, students at the University of Michigan, ask that the Regents form a committee composed of students, faculty and staff to determine the propriety of fossil fuel investments …” followed by a set of reasons the request is made.

This is the second student effort at Michigan for divestment in fossil fuels, the first being back in 2013. In that first effort the Regents decided not to divest. Looking at these two stakeholder groups, they have both acted rationally in the positions they have taken.

Fossil fuel divestment efforts at universities are part of a history of universities making statements on issues of societal importance and social justice. The statements are made by how they do and do not invest their endowments. Earlier divestment examples include tobacco and apartheid-related boycotts of companies doing business in South Africa. According to the advocacy organization GoFossilFree.org, “Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”

I have signed both the current and previous letters supporting the students. I have forwarded the letter to other faculty members, and I get about as many skeptical or negative responses as I get positive responses. In fact, if you look across Michigan’s campus, and I suspect Michigan is not unique – if you look across Michigan’s campus, there is much disagreement about the sensibility, efficacy, and politics of divestment. In fact, the efforts of another student organization, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, to get the Central Student Government to support divestment was definitively defeated.

The Guardian has recently reviewed university-led efforts on divestment. A basic premise of the Guardian’s piece is that working with the fossil fuel companies has been too slow, with many of the companies being disingenuous. Of course, some companies have been overtly hostile and, in fact, have worked to disrupt efforts linking fossil fuels to dangerous, human-caused climate change. Note, the Guardian, itself, has become an advocate of aggressive divestment from fossil fuels, a decision of notable skepticism.

Many of the divestment arguments are based on appeals to social justice. In fact, the definition, quoted above, mentions moral ambiguity. The ultimate push or motivator, however, for divestment is the knowledge that fossil fuels extraction and use are causing rapid and dangerous climate change – along with a host of other environmental problems laden with issues of social justice. Most times, when there is an argument based on ethics and moral ambiguity, the argument falls into a quagmire. The easiest quagmire to fall into is the one of near-term and long-term consequences as well as choosing winners and losers. I have written about the complexity of some of these issues in previous blogs, for example We Like to Burn Things, and No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy. I note, only, that moral ambiguity is, by definition, ambiguous and, therefore, not often the foundation of definitive action. There are substantive moral and ethical issues on both sides of the fossil fuel divestment issue.

There is an interesting discussion on divestment from The Institutional Investor. In the article Why Endowments Should Resist Fossil Fuel Divestments, the authors, who have history with the University of Michigan, accept as given the role of fossil fuels and climate change. Their last two sentences are that, “It [divestment] contains an emotional message which may make some feel good. Whether is would actually do good is more doubtful.” An interesting statement in their article is that divestment serves to increase the polarization in the political argument, which is damaging, and my longer-term readers know that this is an issue of importance to me.

George Will, writing about divestment, claims it only does damage to the university, and therefore, damage to the students. In addition to financial damage, Will claims divestment efforts, and sustainability initiatives in general, marginalize academia and establish universities as non-serious. This is not an opinion I agree with; however, Will’s opinion does represent a point of view that is likely shared by some who are in the position of making decisions about divestment. Indeed, maintaining the money stream off which major universities feed and protecting the seriousness of the institution are, surely, high in the mind of many in the university community.

Stepping into the space of “how do we really solve this problem” my colleague John DeCicco has a piece Rather Than Divest Advocate for Carbon Balancing. He states that a scientific argument “offers reasoning more fundamental than the financial arguments or moral pressure heard in much of the discussion around fossil fuel divestment. In fact, climate science itself implies that the real need is to focus on rebalancing the global carbon cycle.”

DeCicco ends with:

“Even if one decries the policies and practices of certain corporations, that doesn’t mean their core business should be eliminated. There is rightful anger at some parts of the fossil fuel industry for sponsoring anti-environmental campaigns.”

“But it’s not helpful if such frustration causes a confusion of ends and means. Getting rid of fossil fuels is not the end goal. The end goal is balancing the carbon cycle. That’s what must be urgently pursued through whatever means are at hand, including those that enable prudent use of coal, oil and natural gas while actively mitigating their impact. In short, restoring the Earth to balance is the proper focus of environmental policy and advocacy.”

Why, therefore, do I support the student divestment efforts? At the top of my list, this is a place where the student’s have decided to take a position. It is a rational position from not only an ethical and moral point of view, but it is rational in the context of political process and societal change. In addition, the students have made the argument that they and their children will be the ones living and curating the world as the impacts of climate change grow and accelerate. Therefore, they have a solid position as a stakeholder in consequential decisions. I have written about generational time, and it is essential to reduce the amount of time that it takes today’s students to have profound and broad impact.

Next, this is a complex problem of climate change. I run an entire course on solving the complex problems of climate change. The skills gained by these students will be learned early in life and will place them in a better position to accelerate our society’s ability to respond to climate change.

Finally, divestment is a recurring part of political process and policy change. On the other side of the argument, as discussed in Merchants of Doubt, disruption of the process is also a part of the process. In some instances, the behavior of the disruptors is, definitely, immoral, based on establishing and marketing lies. The divestment argument stands on a foundation of knowledge; it is fundamentally responsible and its long-term goals are underrepresented and essential.

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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