It was almost midnight when the bombs went off in Ingalls Rink. On May Day evening, Yale University students had just left the building after holding a public conference to discuss the Black Panther trials. They planned to return and pack into the space by the hundreds for a dance that night. The explosives detonated early, however, and luckily no one was hurt. The perpetrators and their motives were never discovered.
A week earlier, as many as 70 percent of students had gone on strike to demand fair legal proceedings for Bobby Seale, a Panther member being tried for murder in New Haven. University President Kingman Brewster responded by ending the school year early and opening the dorms and dining halls to demonstrators. He spoke to Yale faculty to express solidarity with the students, saying he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” This statement scandalized conservative alumni, and even prompted Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to grumble that Brewster’s assassination would be a benefit to the country.
This was 1970, the peak of student activism on campus. Yale had never before reached such a level of tumult. And never since — not even during today’s global climate change crisis — has a Yale administration so fully partnered with a student movement.
Today’s fight centers not around people, but the planet.
“In the lifetime of everybody in this room, this planet has left the Holocene — the ten thousand years of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization — and moved into something else,” said Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and icon of global environmentalism, describing the scope of the problem to an audience at the Met. “The only question is how far in we’re going to go.”
The “350.org” campaign, an environmental advocacy group founded by McKibben, warns of the disastrous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change. Its website forecasts extreme weather, the disappearance of glaciers that usually supply water for hundreds of millions of people, and even the sinking of cities, farmland, and entire island nations — all of which McKibben believes will come before the end of the century.
The 350.org campaign has taken its movement nationwide. It encourages the formation of a “Fossil Free Coalition” to lower atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to a safe level, below 350 parts per million of CO2 — a reduction that requires leaving 80 percent of fossil fuel untouched. College students have been instrumental in spreading the word, particularly by encouraging their universities to cease investing their endowments in companies with large carbon-emitting operations. A whopping 328 student groups affiliated with or inspired by the Fossil Free Coalition have sprung up at campuses around the country. But only six higher education institutions have committed to divestment.
Sometimes, the task is simple and smooth. In May 2013, San Francisco State University committed to divesting from coal and tar sands companies after a unanimous vote of the committee managing the University’s $52.1 million endowment.
Other times, administrators are not so receptive to change. Last year, the student organization New York University (NYU) Divest requested a “no-demands” audience with the University President to discuss the possibility of divestment. In April 2012, they secured a meeting with the Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, Head of the Sustainability Office, and other senior administrators. NYU Divest co-founder Sophie Lasoff told The Politic that her group presented divestment as a “natural extension” of the University’s present efforts to combat climate change. NYU Divest presented data from the investment management firm Aperio demonstrating that divestment would pose only minimal risk to the endowment long-term. The CFO countered with a one-page article from the Chronicle of Higher Education referencing a study that predicted divestment could cause massive losses, up to hundreds of millions of dollars, over twenty years.
Administrators stated how they were “impressed by [students’] passion and commitment in addressing this issue of climate change,” Lasoff said, but they thought “divestment as a tactic was not a good use of [their] time.” Currently, student environmentalists are asking the Student Senate to take up a resolution in support of divestment, which would then be passed on to the University Senate, whose recommendations go before the Board of Trustees. The administration did not respond to NYU Divest’s request for a follow-up meeting.
The Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC) jumped into the divestment movement when, earlier this year, it formed Fossil Free Yale — a campaign seeking to end Yale’s investment of its endowment in fossil fuel companies. Instead of pushing the University to divest through sit-ins and marches like the protestors of the 1970s, today’s Yale students seek change by coordinating a plan with administrators to address address the endowment’s carbon emissions impact.
This past February, leaders of Fossil Free Yale first met with the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR), the body that coordinates with the Yale Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR). These two boards oversee “socially responsible” management of the endowment. Together with the Yale chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive nonprofit, and the Yale Environmental Law Association, YSEC submitted a detailed divestment proposal, focusing on the top 200 energy companies which hold the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.
Patrick Reed ’15, former YSEC President and a co-author of the divestment report, stressed to The Politic that his group works within Yale’s established systems. YSEC has been “approaching the University according to its own guidelines,” he explained. Reed felt encouraged by Yale’s history of pioneering the concept of social responsible investment. In 1972, Yale professors and graduate students authored The Ethical Investor: Universities and Corporate Responsibility, a handbook which led to the University’s establishment of the ACIR and CCIR.
The procedure of the ACIR calls for action if companies are perpetrating a “social injury,” beginning with outreach to the relevant businesses, followed by requests for changes, and potentially culminating in divestment from uncooperative businesses. “[Yale] guidelines recommend using our role as a shareholder to express voice on issues where a company is engaged in causing ‘social injury,’” former University President Rick Levin said in an interview with the Yale Daily News. “If the use of voice fails, exit in the form of divestment is the final step.”
ACIR has only taken this “final step” twice since its founding. Yale partially divested from South African businesses during apartheid and fully divested from Sudanese oil companies at the height of the Darfur genocide. It has also taken less severe punitive measures. In the mid-1990s, instead of ceasing investment in tobacco companies, ACIR requested that the industry add health warnings on their cigarette packaging and restrict sales and marketing to minors. In the twenty years since, the tobacco industry has been less than enthusiastic in complying.
Considering these precedents, YSEC calls for systematic dialogue with energy companies prior to divestment. The University would ask fossil fuel companies to disclose their emissions data through a third-party carbon-monitoring agency within six months. “We’re open to changing the timeframe,” granted Reed, but “reporting emissions is a precondition to investment.” After submitting its data, a company would have two years to get below a certain “dirtiness ratio,” a measure of emissions per energy produced. Yale would divest if the company did not meet its specified goal or refused to cooperate.
Even McKibben, the biggest champion of the divestment cause, told The Politic the goal of the movement is not primarily to harm fossil fuel companies financially, but to recast the industry as “Public Enemy Number #1.”
“Once we’ve broken their power enough to put a real price on carbon, they’ll become energy companies, not fossil fuel companies,” McKibben wrote in an email to The Politic. “But for the moment they’re adversaries.” 350.org and the country’s most ardent divestment advocates acknowledge, however, that even if every American university divested — their total endowments adding up to almost $400 billion — this would not hugely impact fossil fuel companies’ profits. Nonetheless, they still believe the impact would be substantial.
Yoni Landau SOM ’15, a coalition coordinator of Fossil Free Yale, agrees that Yale’s divesting would have more than just a practical financial effect. “Yale’s impact by making this statement first… will be massive” and “put climate change back on the agenda,” he said. “As one of the 6,000 or so students at Yale, the impact that you can have on the future of the world in your time here by using the full clout of your cultural and political leadership is massive.”
Yale’s divestment alone would not directly attack climate change, he admitted, but he hopes Yale alumni in elected office would use the University’s action as a springboard for national action. He noted that while Yale’s $20 billion endowment might be a drop in the bucket, “$550 billion in U.S. subsidies is not insignificant.”
For some of Yale’s peer institutions, the symbolic value of inspiration is not enough. On October 3, Harvard President Drew Faust ruled out divestment. Her detailed statement articulated much of the reasoning that makes major institutions — many of which are led by individuals supportive of environmentalist causes — reluctant to divest.
Faust said, “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but she still opposes divestment on three grounds. It would jeopardize Harvard’s financial health, “appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution,” and “distract us from more effective measures.” As Levin did, Faust favors “engagement” as shareholders “over withdrawal.” Divest Harvard later attacked the possibility of successful “engagement” as bogus, noting that when Harvard representatives had the opportunity to use their shareholder influence to vote for environmental reforms at ExxonMobil, they instead opposed the measure, considering it “unreasonable in asking the company to address such a major shift in its business focus.”
Faust also found a “troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.” Landau, on the other hand, dismissed the idea that divestment is hypocritical. Citing the Yale Office of Sustainability’s “impressive programs” such as biofuel-burning buses and local produce, he said “we are improving steadily — it’s the other aspect, the financial aspect, that’s lagging behind.” Rejecting Faust’s claims, he said that “just because we use fossil fuels in our daily lives doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to reduce our consumption where we can.”
Faust’s sentiments echo the fossil fuel industry’s position over the past few years.
“We’re very much not a [climate change] denier, very much at the table with our sleeves rolled up,” said Kenneth Cohen, Vice President of Public Affairs at ExxonMobil, as reported by Reuters in 2007. His company recognizes the “inevitability” of government action on climate change, in the form of either a carbon tax or a “carbon market” reminiscent of President Obama’s failed cap-and-trade legislation — and he wishes to cooperate. ExxonMobil would simply advocate for the plan that would minimally reduce profits. “The devil is in the detail,” noted Cohen.
Even prior to Faust’s statement, Divest Harvard embraced a confrontational approach to encouraging divestment — and this time, their tactics more closely mirrored those used in Vietnam War-era protests. Chloe Maxmin, head of the organization, said her group coordinated a sit-in of Faust’s office until they received an audience with the President, after she had missed a deadline for a requested meeting.
Maxmin cited rhetorical “escalation” as a potential response to the administration’s firm opposition. Divest Harvard published a full rebuttal in The Nation, dubbing Faust’s denial of Harvard’s political history “myopic” and imploring administrators to act as “[t]rue leaders” who “do not cling to the status quo of climate degradation and false neutrality.”
YSEC leaders approach the situation at Yale more collaboratively than their Harvard counterparts. They praise the administration’s efforts at cooperation. Landau expresses confidence in the board: “The individuals on the ACIR are thinking hard on this issue… these are people who understand social responsibility.”
Though Maxmin’s group will “remain in dialogue with the administration,” it is planning more concrete action. Maxmin wants to demonstrate that the divestment movement is “not just on paper, not just on the Internet, it’s in person.” Not even a recent referendum — which showed 72 percent of Harvard students in support of divestment — could sway Faust. Sign-waving demonstrations in the classical activist mold are among the only choices left for Divest Harvard.
Although YSEC has worked to raise public awareness — it carved the words “Fossil Free” into the snow of Old Campus last winter — it has focused on contacting Yale administrators rather than staging public rallies. However, if the ACIR delivers a negative verdict, or if Yale President Peter Salovey speaks out against divestment as Faust did, they may alter their methods.
Reed acknowledged that “some people are saying that [divestment] is a radical thing” but argued that “people always say that about any student movement that’s trying to change something.” He emphasized the moderate nature of YSEC’s effort: “I don’t consider [divestment] to be radical… what I consider radical is companies actually changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere in a way that, scientists have clearly demonstrated, will make life unsustainable on the earth.”
Landau looks forward to a referendum to gauge student support for divestment. YSEC has already set up a website to count down every second that passes until the vote. Members of the ACIR have set the unofficial goal of exceeding 72 percent of students in support of the proposal — the proportion that Harvard achieved.
“We were asked to beat Harvard, essentially,” Landau remarked. He is optimistic that the Committee might would deliver a statement in the spring “if there’s clarity” of student opinion. Landau said it would be “spectacular” to get an earlier decision, given that “South Africa took eight years.”
McKibben told The Politic that although he’d like “Yale to divest today,” he acknowledges that meaningful societal change can take years of dialogue, debate, and, of course, elbow grease. “I’d rather have two years of heated campaigning till every student, professor and alum knows that the fossil fuel companies are rogue companies and that we shouldn’t be in bed with them!” he said.
Landau sees this moment as a pivotal point in the history of the environmental movement. “Climate change advocacy has been going on meaningfully for two decades, since Kyoto,” he explained, but lacked “the same access to decision makers” it now enjoys. The goal of Fossil Free Yale is clear in his mind: to do “whatever it takes to get a meaningful statement to use Yale’s leverage in the world to create effective climate policy.”
Landau tempered hopes for the future; the ACIR is an advisory body, he said, and the real decision lies in the hands of the CCIR and the Yale Corporation. While wary that modeling the campaign on Harvard’s example could make the activists appear “shrill,” Landau is absolutely unwilling to back down. “If we feel like we’re being ignored, we’ll get louder,” he affirmed.
Whether Salovey will prove to be a Kingman Brewster to the divestment movement, or a Drew Faust, remains to be seen. With the pomp and circumstance of his recent inauguration over, the tents and banners have been taken down and the campus is calm. It may not stay so quiet.