Divesting: Carleton’s time is now

By Beck Woollen; Published in the Carletonian on February 14, 2020

Carleton is committed to a sustainable future, and the College’s website says so:

“Carleton’s official colors might be maize and blue, but look around campus and you’ll be seeing green.”

The College has made great strides toward its 2011 commitment to be carbon-free by 2050. Several halls on campus have Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design (LEED) certifications, we’re partially wind-powered, and most recently, Carleton installed its geothermal well system, which aims for a 35–40 percent decrease in carbon emissions from the College’s central plant. Whereas these actions all indicate an impressive momentum toward a fossil-free Carleton, there exists a weak link in the chain: our endowment. There is a national momentum building on college campuses in favor of removing fossil fuel from endowments. This act is called divesting, and it is specifically targeted toward the top-200 fossil fuel companies. This figure is composed of the top 100 coal companies and the top 100 natural gas and oil companies worldwide. These rankings are based on emissions potential from companies’ reported reserves. The number of institutions making firm commitments to divest is increasing, and some of them are quite similar to Carleton. On May 4, 2019, several Carleton alumni noted in The Carletonian that “College of the Atlantic, Warren Wilson, Northland, Pitzer, Lewis and Clark, Whitman, and most recently Middlebury” had all made such commitments. Last fall, Smith college joined the list, and our neighbors at St. Olaf are pushing for a similar shift, and so have larger institutions, including Syracuse University, and recently, Georgetown University. This past month, the student body presidents of Big 10 universities unanimously passed a resolution calling upon their institutions to take the same action. For years, Divest Carleton has sought a similar commitment from our Board of Trustees: a freeze on new fossil fuel investments in Carleton’s portfolio and divestment from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds. It is our firm belief that the time to take such action has never been better

The Carleton endowment consists of several main types of investment, the most accessible of which is our direct holdings. Namely, this portion of the endowment entails a more straightforward relationship between investors and firms. In 2015, the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee highlighted that fossil fuels composed approximately 3.2% of the direct holdings or 0.54% of the total endowment at the time. That number has since dropped to zero, meaning that Carleton currently does not possess direct holdings in fossil fuels. This marks great progress. Regrettably, though, there is a critical factor that inhibits Divest Carleton from recognizing the direct holdings as being clean: we are aware of no commitment made by the trustees to not reinvest in fossil fuels.

Carleton students currently matriculate from 42 countries and all 50 states. As anthropogenic climate issues proliferate both domestically and internationally, it stands to reason that many Carls’ homes may already be facing the negative consequences. As a whole, the fossil fuel industry has engaged in egregious behaviors, which range from negligence toward indigenous peoples in the path of their pipelines to active efforts to suppress the truth about climate. In effect, profits from the fossil fuel industry are blood money. Divest Carleton finds that the financial support of these harmful corporations contradicts the conscientiousness and global engagement that Carleton stands for. The college mission explains that our institution seeks to “prepare its graduates to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges.” Our investment portfolio ought to walk the talk.

When reflecting on the history of college investments, it is noteworthy that Carleton hesitated to completely divest from apartheid-era South African companies. In reflecting on the collapsing apartheid regime, divestment is seen as having been effective. Divest Carleton believes that our institution still has the option to help lead the fossil fuel divestment movement, not to simply follow. We suspect that fossil fuel companies are unlikely to be the only blue-chip stock in our direct holdings, indicated by their small percentage of the 2015 endowment.
We foresee divestment being particularly influential for two reasons: cumulative economic impact and public image. With respect to cumulative economic impact, gofossilfree.org states that 1,184 institutions are currently committed to divestment. While the effect of Carleton divesting is small in isolation, it is far more imposing when attached to a movement of this magnitude. As for public image, it is our belief that investment condones the behavior of a firm. It is thus a very strong vehicle for societal change. As arguably the most imminent threat to our future, climate change is now more serious than it ever has been. Divest Carleton finds that committing to not reinvest in the top 200 fossil fuel companies is necessary for Carleton to best serve its role as an environmental leader, and as a steward of our futures.

Thus, we call upon the Board of Trustees to make a firm commitment to not reinvest in the fossil fuel industry as part of Carleton’s direct holdings – a commitment is all that is needed to make these clean. Additionally, Divest Carleton believes a similar commitment ought to be made in the comingled funds portion of our endowment. Having grown up in Minnesota and knowing of Carleton for the majority of my life, it is my personal belief that continued negligence toward these commitments highly misrepresents the role of environmental leadership Carleton advertises and holds in the public eye.