Whitman Investments in Fossil Fuels Spurs Divestment Movement

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In its most recent effort to organize efforts to combat global warming, Climate Campus Challenge (CCC) aims to change Whitman College’s investment policy to encourage the college to withdraw funds, or “divest,” from fossil fuel companies.

The new campaign, which will be led by first-year Erika Longino and sophomore Sierra Dickey, will first work to raise awareness about climate change, fossil fuels and Whitman’s investments, and then attempt to impact policy through petitions, letter writing and meeting directly with administrators.

“We’re privileged. We get the opportunity to come here and go to school and understand the system we’re working under. To understand that we ourselves are investing in fossil fuel companies and we have the power to not invest in them is incredibly empowering, and there’s a lot of potential,” said Longino.

The divestment campaign at Whitman aims to build off the momentum provided by the national Fossil Free campaign being organized by 350.org, which aims to divest colleges from fossil fuels in order to raise awareness of global warming and the need to lower carbon levels in the atmosphere to at least 350 parts per million (ppm). Estimates put the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere at 392 ppm, up from 275 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The leader of the 350 movement, Bill McKibben, will be giving a lecture at Whitman in April.

Although only a few colleges have completed divestment in fossil fuels, campaigns are under way at over 200 academic institutions across the country, including many liberal arts colleges similar to Whitman.

While every branch of the Fossil Free campaign works towards divestment, the specifics of divestment often differ. At Whitman, the CCC hopes to convince the college to first halt new investments in fossil fuel, and then slowly divest existing funds over a five-year period.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the campaign could research financial managers and make recommendations to the Support Investment Committee, pursuing further investment in alternative energies rather than a full divestment which would require the college to choose entirely new managers for the entire endowment. Other colleges across the nation have taken different approaches, such as targeting specific corporations or fuels.

“There are a lot of signs that coal is in decline in the U.S.––it’s being pressured by a lot of other energy sources. So we thought it would be a very strategic first step in the divestment movement [to target coal],” said Will Vanderbilt, an environmental activist who helped organize the campaign for divestment at Brown University in the fall of 2012.

CCC hopes to connect with other student organization on campus, including the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) and the Whitman Investment Company. While there are significant difficulties in divesting, the environmental movement at Whitman has had a number of successes in the last decade. In 2005 ASWC passed a resolution calling for tuition to be raised $5 per year in exchange for the college purchasing 20 percent of energy used on campus from renewable sources, and in 2007 the CCC raised $14,000 in order to further increase the college’s purchase of renewable energy.

“For two reasons, number one that it’s going to affect tuition and number two that I actually think they have more influence, I think that divestment should be student-driven,” said Professor of Geology & Environmental Studies Bob Carson. “[In 2005] students did make it known that they wanted more alternative energy. There were never any protest marches or anything, but ASWC had that vote and that was relayed to the administration.”

However, not all student activism at Whitman has resulted in success. The last major divestment campaign at Whitman occurred during the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Despite a national movement and student involvement, the Board of Trustees refused to divest from companies doing business with the apartheid regime until compelled to by legislation passed by the U.S. Congress.

Whitman’s endowment is currently invested in a wide array of companies chosen for their financial success, and divesting in fossil fuel companies would lower Whitman’s financial returns, resulting in a possible rise in tuition.

The decision to divest would ultimately need to be made by the Board of Trustees, who set Whitman’s investment policy. Their policy is then implemented by the Support Investment Committee, which hires an investment consultant to analyze different financial managers. Each manager chosen by the committee decides independently where to invest funds, and the college does not play a role in this final decision.

“The investment committee and the trustees periodically have discussions about social investing, and find it a very difficult thing to attempt to do. There [are] a lot of different definitions of what should be considered social investing,” said Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey. “As the trustees have considered that, they have felt that taking political positions isn’t what their responsibility is as trustees; their responsibility is fiduciary, and the best thing they can do to help with all these issues is to have a diversified investment portfolio that provides a good risk-adjusted return to maximize the benefit of the endowment for providing scholarship to our students, supporting faculty salaries, and making a Whitman College education much more affordable than it otherwise might be. And by doing that they’re helping society the most by generating liberally-educated students who can go out and really make a difference in these issues.”

Recognizing the important role graduates play in sustaining the college’s endowment and making decisions on campus, the CCC has reached out to alumni in an attempt to extend support for divestment. Alumna Camila Thorndike ’10 has been working with a number of organizations on issues concerning environmentalism and social justice, and is working with the CCC to encourage alumni to express support for divestment.

“[Alumni have power through] the financial support that the college depends on alumni providing over our lifetime. This is a really critical issue, because the college’s mission is to educate and create, as it says on the website, ethical and accomplished leaders. We need a world to lead, and [global warming] is the biggest known danger humanity has ever faced. With the impact we’re looking at, there won’t be much to work with unless the college and all other independent institutions take a stand now,” said Thorndike.

On a national scale, the divestment campaign aims to bring attention to the issue of global warming and fossil fuel. Corporations dealing in fossil fuels are too large and well-funded for divestment to have a significant impact on their business, but activists hope their actions will lead to a collapse of public support for the companies.

“If you get colleges to divest, not only are you putting your money where your mouth is, you’re using your money to send a message. That message is sent to the fossil fuel companies in a way that they can feel it; money is their language,” said Dickey. “[The goal is to communicate] they’re not in the public’s favor and people aren’t going to continue to support them, at least in this one manner of not investing in their publicly traded stocks… I can only hope that they would try to do something differently because they care about their public image.”

While the divestment campaign already has the support of a number of students, alumni and faculty, some controversies remain around the issue. The concept of global warming as a crisis caused by humans is not universally accepted. On the opposite end of the political scale, not all environmentalists view divestment as an effective means to create change, and believe that other tactics such as government intervention or direct action must be employed to stop the extraction of fossil fuel.

“We’re really open to counter-arguments and feedback, and we want this to be something the entire Whitman community stands behind,” said senior and CCC co-president Danielle Broida. “So I would encourage people who have any opinion, on either side, to come to a meeting, to come talk to us, to give us advice, to give us counter-arguments, because the more voices [we hear] the better and the more powerful we’ll be.”

Colleges that Have Successfully Divested from Fossil Fuels

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2 Responses to “Whitman Investments in Fossil Fuels Spurs Divestment Movement”

  1. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Divestment Meet Quotes on January 29th, 2013 5:14 pm

    […] “Our thought is that by divesting from these companies is we can destabilize the social support for fossil fuels and invest in other sustainable forms of energy,” said junior Claire Meints, who is one of the leaders of the divestment campaign. […]

  2. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Board of Trustees States College Will Not Divest from Fossil Fuel Companies on February 11th, 2014 12:41 pm

    […] a student panel held to discuss the pros and cons of divestment and  petitions and letters sent to the trustees from students urging divestment last year, ASWC passed resolution […]

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