College resists call for divestment

Board of Trustees show no immediate signs of reallocating funds away from the declining fossil fuel industry

As fossil fuel stocks continue to decline and the earth’s temperature continues to increase, one might expect the college’s Board of Trustees to shift investments to the growing clean energy market. However, students from the Environmental Action Team (EnAcT) would find no easy task in convincing the Board to hop on their campaign of “divestment.”

“As a student at Muhlenberg, divestment for me is a way of protecting the stability of our financial engagements and our endowment,” said Devin Domeyer ‘18, one of the organizers of the Muhlenberg divestment collective. “It’s a moral imperative. It’s something intrinsically tied to climate change, intrinsically tied to environmental racism and to Muhlenberg’s Fundamental Institutional Values.”

Those values state that “We are committed to being good citizens of the Earth, and to making institutional decisions that are mindful of our complex relations with the ecosystem.” Ultimately, Domeyer and other students found it frustrating to leave the meeting with no commitments from the Board to adhere to those values.

In April 2016, a group of students collected over 500 signatures in support of the College’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry and a shift to renewable energy.

This meeting, that occurred on Oct. 26, has not been the only effort to communicate with the Board of Trustees. In 2016, a group of students waited outside of a meeting and was soon invited in to share their plan.  The following spring, Members of EnAcT met with the investment committee to attempt to build a financial plan. It was at this meeting that the Environmental Social Governance (ESG) account was brought to their attention.

The ESG account is intended to contain companies that align with certain environmental, social and governance ratings set by Hirtle Callaghan, an outsourced financial planner. It contains 2.5 percent of the college endowment, according to Domeyer. “There’s holdings in that portfolio that are companies that exclusively support fossil fuel industries,” says Domeyer. “Basically, Muhlenberg has taken no steps to divest from fossil fuels.”

At the most recent Board meeting, the students anticipated that their financial argument would be enough, with the moral argument behind divestment actually invoked by President John Williams himself during the meeting.

“The investment committee and our administration as a whole, clearly, is already aware of the moral implications of privately profiting from an industry that’s endangering the lives of millions of people,” said Domeyer.

“It is our belief that Muhlenberg can be good citizens of the Earth without divesting completely from fossil fuels.”

“We wanted to give them an argument that they would be able to understand and really get on board with,” added Domeyer. “If we wait until we see a substantial loss in the fossil fuel industry, if we wait until they all kind of have the same trend as the coal industry, then it’s too late. We haven’t gotten ahead of it and we’re going to see substantial losses.”

Despite the financial aspect of it all, the continuous prospecting of oil and gas companies threatens the environment to a potentially catastrophic degree. Domeyer explained that if more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide are released, we will have surpassed the threshold of 2oC of global warming, bringing about more natural disasters and extreme weather patterns.

“The fossil fuel industry, in proven reserves, has almost 3,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide and they’re still prospecting,” said Domeyer. “Shell and Exxon fully expect that we’re going to get to 6oC of warming because they don’t expect that their company is actually going to get regulated. That’s billions and billions of lives lost. That’s trillions of dollars lost.”

Domeyer also added that a study by the University of Minnesota showed Eastern Pennsylvania as having the “widest disparity between low-income minority groups exposed to nitrous oxide and high-income white groups.” Like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is one of the most common waste products of the fossil fuel industry. Despite the wide disparity, ranked second only to New York City, no Pa. college has divested.

“We all recognize the serious nature of climate change and the impact that the burning of fossil fuels has on our environment. However, we do need to take into consideration the fact that the global economy would not function without these energy sources that we depend on,” said Douglas Peebles, Trustee and Chair of the Investment Committee, in an email interview. “It is our belief that Muhlenberg can be good citizens of the Earth without divesting completely from fossil fuels.”

Divestment only adds to the recent trends of growth for scientists becoming activists. Climate change activism has been around since the 1960s, but with the election of President Trump and his stance on climate change and climate research a more profound sense of activism has resurfaced.

In the United States, divestment from fossil fuels has been an official campaign spanning less than five years, with already more than five trillion dollars divested according to the gofossilfree.org, the main website for the movement. What began as a largely student-run effort is now largely supported by faith-based organizations, philanthropic foundations and even government entities.

According to Domeyer, although the movement began as a moral obligation, it was quickly matched by the financial aspect of it all.

“They already know the moral argument,” said Domeyer. “We’ve outlined a very compelling financial argument for them. I don’t know why they’re not willing to make commitments.”

“Understandably, the trustees act with extreme care overseeing how the College’s endowment is invested,” said Williams in an email interview. “Changes to our endowment investment policy rank among the most important decisions our trustees make. Careful consideration of such decisions often takes time.”

That endowment, running at $270 million, “is absolutely essential as a financial underpinning of the College,” and is relatively low compared to similar colleges, according to Williams.

One inhibiting factor for the investors to divest is the prospective nature of big oil and gas companies. The argument is that while they’re still prospecting, there’s still room for growth within the market, according to Domeyer.

“They asked a lot of questions about the future economic viability of coal, oil and fossil fuels and we were saying that because of increased regulation and stigmatization, there’s going to be more restraints on the market,” said Madeleine Weko ‘18, another lead organizer of Muhlenberg’s divestment collective.

Future action with the divestment group will focus on “building their base” and getting students talking and engaging in the conversation.

“The demand for energy, and oil in particular, across the globe has actually increased over this time period, which calls into question whether or not this is an industry in decline,” said Peebles. “The investment philosophy that the Muhlenberg College endowment follows is a value-based style which entails a greater emphasis on buying investments that have underperformed and selling ones that have out-performed.”

“I think mainly what we need to do is continue to bring them proof that it is financially responsible to get away from these resources before they become stranded assets,” Weko added.

“While the recent trends do, in fact, show that many companies in the traditional energy space have underperformed the market that does not necessarily mean they will continue to underperform,” said Peebles. “The price of oil has declined quite sharply starting in 2014, but that has more to do with additional supply sources coming to the market with the advance of technologies that enable extraction of previously non-commercial fuel.”

For now, members of EnAcT plan on collecting even more evidence in anticipation of their next meeting with the Board of Trustees and the Investment Committee.

“Rather than rest on just their opinions or even on one-sided arguments, they came to the committee with well-researched points, backed up by written source material that they provided for the committee’s review,” added Williams. “They really did their homework and did an outstanding job of presenting their case powerfully and engagingly.”

Future action with the divestment group will focus on “building their base” and getting students talking and engaging in the conversation. Domeyer plans to invite speakers to campus, reach out to alumni and continue meeting with the investment committee.

“We want to emphasize that we’re here to work with the investment committee because we want to be a part of this process,” said Domeyer. “We have to be more vocal and keep applying that pressure. We have to make sure that they know that this isn’t a fad and we’re not going away.”

In what she calls “decade zero” of climate change, the immediate five-year window marks the point in which action can have a “profound impact and preemptively protect our endowment.”

Recently, green initiatives to become more energy- and water-efficient and reduce food waste, as well as efforts to address and eliminate campus racism have marked steps in the right direction for enhancing our social and environmental governance. However, continuing to fund companies that actively contribute to climate change and systematic environmental racism undermines any claims that adhere to being “good citizens of the Earth,” as stated in the college’s own Fundamental Institutional Values.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth has called an investment strategy such as Muhlenberg’s – which presumes good financial prospects for the fossil fuel industry despite the global commitments to dramatically reduce usages (and disregards the ethical considerations) – “betting against Paris.” See his article on the subject: “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries.”

    A good reference list (though not up-to-date) of divestment-related publications can be found at “Divest | Divest Smith College.”

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