Companies that derived more than 35 percent of its revenue from thermal coal production were subject to Columbia’s divestment in 2017. While this was the first proposal to divest from fossil fuels, these companies are only a fraction of those that student groups and faculty have repeatedly claimed are not ethically aligned with the University’s mission.
This week, Extinction Rebellion stood in front of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to present on why fossil fuel divestment is within Columbia’s ethical responsibilities. As an advisory group to the managers of Columbia’s endowment, ACSRI has an interest in ensuring the financial stability of the University while also representing the social and financial values of its affiliates.
The group’s proposal was clear: Columbia should divest from the “stock of any company who is primarily in the fossil fuel and extraction business.” That requirement would cover coal mining businesses, any organizations that reject climate change, and active investors in companies which exacerbate climate change.
“Extinction Rebellion took the older petition [from 2017] and modified it to call for complete divest,” said professor Michael Gerrard, who advised the organization on the proposal after meeting members at their five-day hunger strike. “It’s clear that the University wants to be a global leader in climate change. Divestment would be an important action.”
But ACSRI’s record of rejecting proposals on complete fossil fuel divestment led the three students representing Extinction Rebellion—Abby Schroering GSAS ’23, Michael Cusack TC ’21, and Savannah Pearson, GSAS ’20,—to brainstorm every argument and counterargument they could expect in preparation for the hearing.
The students presented their proposal for 30 minutes, followed by a Q&A session by the board members. To the students’ surprise, ACSRI was mainly concerned with clarifying the demand that companies who are “primarily involved with other fossil fuels,” affirm and provide documentation that they are transitioning to renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies that have committed to transitioning are outlier, Schroering said.
Meanwhile, other institutions like Dartmouth have focused on the potentially negative financial consequences on the university.
“We were surprised and enthused by the lack of much direct counterarguments, or many counterarguments. The committee overall appears sympathetic with both the ends and means of divestment,” Cusack said.
The representatives have yet to be notified about the committee’s decision. They also don’t know when the committee will decide, which is a point of concern for the group given the “urgency” warranted by global climate change.
“The committee indicated it would take a few months for the process. Knowing the urgency of this crisis, we need a lot more [clarity],” Cusack said.
Columbia would be the first Ivy League school to divest from fossil fuels entirely if the proposal, in its current form, is accepted. While Ivy League schools have a history of rejecting divestment proposals, the issue received national attention in November after hundreds of protesters stormed the field in a Harvard-Yale game calling for divestment.
Last week, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said he would bring the proposal to the Harvard Corporation, following a 179-20 vote for divestment by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, according to the Harvard Crimson. While the timeline for divestment is unclear, Divest Harvard has set Earth Day, April 22, as the deadline for the University to divest before further action is taken.
“Strategically and in principle, [administration’s timeline] is a lot less important than what we are pushing towards that deadline,” member Jordan Barton said.
The Extinction Rebellion said they will continue to collect student and alumni petition signatures and promote solidarity events in order to prove to ACSRI that fossil fuel divestment is a “University community consensus,” a requirement for the committee to grant recommendation.
“It's important that we understand that this isn’t the end of the work.”