Today, on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Brown University defied the will of its student body and its own investment advisory committee and voted not to divest from the 15 largest U.S. coal companies.
"I'm deeply disappointed in our administration," said Brown student Ruby Goldberg '17. "The board acted explicitly in opposition to the voices of Brown's community, and of the endowment oversight committee. This could have been a moment for Brown to step up as a leader in the fight against climate change. Instead, the administration chose to continue supporting an industry that profits from wreaking havoc on frontline communities and destroying our chance for a sustainable future."
The decision comes as the fossil fuel divestment campaign continues to pick up momentum around the world. There are now active divestment campaigns underway at over 400 colleges, cities, and religious institutions across the US. The campaign is also spreading to Europe, where Bill McKibben and 350.org are kicking off the Fossil Free Europe tour in Berlin this evening. Recently, the University of Oxford published a study concluding that the fossil fuel divestment movement is growing even faster than past efforts that targeted apartheid and Big Tobacco.
"Students at Brown have worked as hard or harder than any others in the country and more to the point, they've done absolutely everything by the book," said Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign helping coordinate the divestment campaign. "They deserved to win this fight and in the long run they will win this fight, because it's their future at stake, not the future of a handful of rich people on the Brown board."
The Board's vote came after a year of active campaigning from the Brown Divest Coal student campaign. Since the fall, students have held rallies, phone-banked, hosted teach-ins, met with administrators, and gathered over 3,600 petition signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff in support of divestment.
"To me this vote shows that Brown doesn't take its commitments to social justice and combating climate change seriously," said Divest Coal member Kari Malkki '16. "What's the point of teaching about climate science or environmental racism if we won't act on that knowledge? Today our administration was too timid to challenge the status quo, but we're going to keep pushing them to stand for what is right. Until then, our 'Boldly Brown' motto sounds laughable."
There's good reason to believe that Brown's decision not to divest was influenced by the ties a number of its board members have to the fossil fuel industry. In an op-ed published in the Brown Daily Herald, members of the Brown Divest Coal Campaign identified several board members with significant holdings in the coal industry, including Brian Moynihan '81 P'14, president and CEO of Bank of America, which as of Aug. 14 has $1 billion worth of holdings in 14 of the 15 companies in question. Brown students recently published an oped requesting these board members recuse themselves from the coal divestment vote, but they received no response.
"The voting process at Brown echos the coal industry's stranglehold on our nation's governing bodies. Once again, a corrupt process lead to a dangerous outcome," said Ian Georgianna '15, a member of Brown Divest Coal. "Unless we confront this system, we won't be able to make meaningful progress to address climate change."
Brown University President Christina H. Paxson announced the Corporation's decision in an open letter posted on the university's website. While she acknowledged the threat posed by climate change and the environmental damage caused by the coal industry, she offered two faulty arguments to why the University would not divest.
First, President Paxson argued that while coal posed certain environmental risks, it did not cause enough social harm to warrant divestment. This conclusion is directly contradicted by numerous studies that highlight the enormous social cost of coal consumption. The 2010 "Hidden Cost of Energy" study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the damage from coal fired power plant emission in 2005 cost the nation about $62 billion and that costs would only increase. A 2011 Harvard University study calculated that coal costs U.S. one-third to over one-half a trillion dollars annually. Coal is also one of the main drivers of climate change, which if left unaddressed could cut off up to 20 percent of global GDP according to the 2006 Stern Review.
The University's own Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Investment Policy recently encouraged the Board to divest from the coal industry, writing, "The companies recommended for divestment perpetrate grave, indeed egregious, social harm, and there is no possible way to square our profiting from such harm with the values and principles of the University."
Second, President Paxson argued that divestment was an ineffective tool to changing the behavior of the fossil fuel industry and addressing the climate crisis, a claim that both academic studies, and historical experience, refute. A recent study by the University of Oxford concluded that the current fossil fuel divestment campaign is growing faster than any previous divestment campaign and could cause significant damage to coal, oil and gas companies. The campaign also has the blessing of a leader of the anti-apartheid divestment movement, Nobel-Peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote, "Divestment played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. The corporations understood money even when they weren't swayed by morality. Climate change is a deeply moral issue, too."
The anti-apartheid movement continues to serve as a useful model for current divestment activists. Many universities, including Harvard, which recently said no to fossil fuel divestment, initially refused to divest from South Africa, only to later buckle under student pressure. The first fossil fuel divestment sit-in took place just down the road from Brown University at the Rhode Island School of Design. As students begin to receive more pushback from their (corporate controlled) boards, there will certainly be more.