January 11, 2016
An Open Letter to the Carleton Trustees: Divest From Fossil Fuels
Letter from Divest Carleton Students in response to Trustees’ 11/12/15 Memo to CRIC Regarding Divestment
Dear Carleton Board of Trustees,
We, the students of Divest Carleton, are writing to you to express our dissatisfaction with your response to the recommendation to divest from fossil fuels made in September by the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC)*.
First, let us acknowledge the steps Carleton has taken toward environmental stewardship that were outlined in your response to fossil fuel divestment. These steps represent effective climate leadership and demonstrate heartening dedication to environmental responsibility. However, reducing Carleton’s carbon footprint and aiming for carbon neutrality do not relieve Carleton of its duty to align its investments with its values. As long as reasonable opportunities to fight climate change remain within our means, it is both prudent and necessary to take them.
The call for divestment at Carleton has been made by a quarter of faculty, nearly 40% of current students, over 500 alumni, the Carleton Student Association Senate and CRIC. Surely, then, it merits much more consideration than your cursory and unsatisfactory response grants it.
Unfortunately, the response refuses direct interaction with the arguments CRIC presents. For example, following a thorough review of studies of the effects of divestment on endowments, CRIC predicts that “the financial risk of fossil fuel divestment from Carleton’s direct holdings is bound to be relatively low, if not negligible.” Your reply is “we believe that reducing the universe of possible investments will have a negative impact on long-term investment returns.” No evidence is given to support the applicability of this belief to the case of fossil fuel divestment in particular. Given the weighty reasons to believe the contrary — that divesting from fossil fuels will be an economic boon — and the number of high-profile funds divesting for financial reasons, we can only conclude that the Board has not yet met its duty to give full consideration to divestment.
Despite the fact that CRIC dismisses shareholder engagement as “far less effective than divestment,” your letter continues to treat it as an appropriate strategy without so much as acknowledging the arguments to the contrary. Shareholder resolutions cannot hope to change a company’s core business practices, and insisting on trying signals a commitment to business as usual rather than the transformative changes we so clearly need.
The letter’s failure to acknowledge CRIC’s ethical arguments is even more concerning. CRIC details its ethical concerns about the fossil fuel industry at length, and states in conclusion that “it is ethically problematic to hold these fossil fuel stocks in our endowment.” Your reply begins with a half-truth – Carleton “has a long history of not taking positions on issues that are not clearly academic” – and proceeds to explain that Carleton occupies a “delicate niche” which seeking to “define, promote, and enforce morality” could disrupt. But surely any such niche a school like ours could occupy in society requires of us that we at least act ethically, if not enforcing that others do; and since you nowhere contest CRIC’s claim that divestment is a moral act, these worries about Carleton’s proper place do not seem relevant. Though you consider the worth of divestment as an instrument for change, nowhere do you respond to the simple argument, often made, that it is unethical to own the companies in question and therefore we ought not to.
You characterize divestment as a “moral and/or political statement,” which it undoubtedly is. But as CRIC points out, and you do not acknowledge, so is refusal to divest. Continuing to hold fossil fuel stocks is a tacit statement of support for the industry’s extractive practices, political agenda, and egregious misinformation campaigns. While we agree that it may not always be proper to “insert… Carleton into public and political debates,” as you say, at this point there is clearly no way to remove Carleton from the conversation about climate change. The College entered that one when it made itself a shareholder of fossil fuel companies, and when it publicly acknowledged the threat of climate change by signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Carleton cannot avoid being a participant in global issues, but we can at least be sure it participates responsibly and morally.
Finally, you dismiss fossil fuel divestment as inappropriate to Carleton’s mission. To the contrary, we fail to see how investing in firms which fund damaging misinformation campaigns can be construed as appropriate to an educational mission. If the principal aim of Carleton really is to “create and share knowledge,” as you say, it is deeply concerning that we are condoning the opposite with our investments.
In conclusion, we do not believe that the Board has given fossil fuel divestment the diligent consideration expected of it. Additionally, it has allowed what discussion has taken place so far to proceed in a secretive and exclusive manner. We therefore request that the Board reexamine CRIC’s recommendation, and do so with a greater commitment to transparency and inclusivity.
The Students of Divest Carleton
*CRIC’s report advocating for divestment and the Board’s response letter can be found here: https://apps.carleton.edu/governance/cric/divest/