An alumnus writes to President Poskanzer

May 8, 2014

 

President Steven Poskanzer

Carleton College

One North College Street

Northfield, MN 55057

 

Dear President Poskanzer:

 

As a Carleton alumnus from the class of 1964 preparing to attend my 50 year reunion next month, I want to express my appreciation for your leadership in making Carleton a greener campus and in taking seriously the responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint associated with campus activities. Carleton’s membership in the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and its development and implementation of a Climate Action Plan are steps that make me proud to be a Carleton alum.

 

While I applaud these actions, I believe that, given the critical and urgent nature of the climate challenges that we face, it is time for the college to take additional steps to show leadership in addressing this problem. Thus I am writing to urge you to move Carleton to a decision to divest its endowment holdings in fossil fuel companies as soon as possible. For the past year or so I have been working with a mostly alumni group (Divest Carleton) to advance the cause of fossil fuel divestment among Carleton alumni and students. I have attended meetings of the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC) as well as talks on campus regarding climate change and divestment.  I have communicated directly with members of your financial and alumni relations staff and have presented ideas to CRIC. Up until now I have hesitated to write to you directly until our movement is stronger and more connected with the student body. We have now made significant progress on these fronts. What has compelled me to write now is this week’s release of the new National Climate Assessment. This assessment (focused on the U.S.) follows on the heels of three additional recent assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), the principal scientific body examining issues related to climate change globally.

 

The message of all of these assessments is the same:

 

1. Human caused climate change is already upon us, causing significant negative ecological, economic, and human impacts.

2. A “business as usual” strategy in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will lead to even more severe, and truly calamitous, impacts on global populations and environments. These impacts are causing and will cause the greatest suffering and hardship on the poor and vulnerable.

 

3. There are paths that we can follow to minimize the damage, but we must move quickly or solutions will be much more costly and will not prevent some of the most damaging impacts.

 

As you undoubtedly know, the magnitude and urgency of this crisis has generated a national campaign, coordinated by the organization 350.org, led by Bill McKibben, to draw attention to the role of the fossil fuel industry in this problem. The campaign calls on colleges and other institutional investors to divest their holdings in major fossil fuel companies. Divest Carleton is a part of this national campaign. Just yesterday, this campaign achieved a major victory when Stanford University committed to divesting from holdings in coal company stocks. The movement takes its inspiration, in part, from the South Africa divestment movement. Carleton will soon be presented with formal student and alumni requests for divestment from its fossil fuel holdings. I am urging you to respond positively to these requests or, even better, move to divest before these formal requests come in. Such action would demonstrate clear leadership on the part of the College. Carleton divested holdings in the South Africa struggle and it can and should do so again.

 

The genesis and rationale for this campaign dates back to McKibben’s article in the July 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” The key idea of this article is that fossil fuel companies have significantly more carbon based reserves in their asset base than can ever be burned without causing catastrophic climate impacts. This “math” has now been confirmed by the analysis contained in IPCC and other reports. So the reality is that the business plans of the major fossil fuel companies are simply incompatible with the actions necessary to mitigate the coming climate change impacts. It is clear that we need to move as quickly as possible to a low carbon energy system. But the business plans of these companies hinge on continued and expanded fossil fuel use and even the scouring of fragile parts of the globe to uncover more fossil fuels that, under any reasonable scenario, can never be burned. In addition, the industry has, in the past, and continues now, to fund studies, think tanks, media campaigns, political candidates, and lobbying efforts to sow confusion and mislead  regarding the realities of climate change and to block any significant political efforts to seriously address the problem. These are not companies in which Carleton should be invested.

 

The investment community has also begun to recognize this folly of counting unburnable fossil fuel reserves as assets. Increasingly, it appears that the fossil fuel companies may end up with “stranded assets” as the global community moves, as it must, to a low carbon energy system. These stranded assets could significantly reduce the value of these companies. A significant group of investors recently submitted questions to the major fossil fuel companies asking how they were dealing with this risk. Exxon’s answer was essentially that there could be this risk if the world were to move to a dramatically lower carbon future but that this is not likely to happen. The report stated: “All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs.” What the report did not say is that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel producers will likely do everything they can to try to prevent the low carbon future from happening.

 

I don’t believe that the Carleton has as yet sufficiently considered the moral, financial, and political significance of fossil fuel divestment. I am aware that in January of 2013 the college adopted a “Carleton College Statement on Fossil Fuel Divestment” which states that “Carleton does not have a policy of divesting, or of supporting divestment.” Presumably this means that the college opposes fossil fuel divestment, although that’s not exactly what it says.  It is not clear to me what process was used to develop or adopt this statement or to develop the policy (or lack of a policy) that it cites. Nor am I aware of any widespread campus discussion of this issue at that time. CRIC may have been involved in this process and at one time CRIC added some support to the Statement. However, this year CRIC essentially disavowed its support for the statement, removed it from its web site, and adopted a position of neutrality with respect to fossil fuel divestment.

 

The rationale for the college policy appears to be that the on-campus steps that the college has taken to reduce reliance on fossil fuels (e.g., under the Climate Action Plan) “are all much more effective ways to combat the effects of fossil fuel than divestment.” While personal and institutional steps to reduce carbon footprints are laudable and important, they are not sufficient. A divestment movement, by fueling grass roots understanding and organizing, and by putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry, has the potential to make significant changes far beyond the actions of one campus. By questioning and discrediting the behavior of the fossil fuel industry, the campaign can advance a new front in the efforts to reduce the release of greenhouse gas pollution. Further, there is no conflict between campus greening and fossil fuel divestment. They actually go hand in hand. A full campus discussion of this statement and of the issue of divestment is warranted.

 

To summarize, I am convinced that climate change is a problem so serious and threatening on so many fronts, that business as usual approaches are not enough. Climate change is an “all hands on deck” and “use all the tools in the tool box” problem. It is also presents a signifidant moral challenge to institutions and individuals. Personal and institutional greening is important as are political approaches. But Carleton has another tool that it can use by joining with other colleges and institutional investors in a fossil fuel divestment movement. I urge you to lead the college in this direction and move for total fossil fuel divestment as quickly as possible. Thank you for your consideration.

 

 

 

Brett Smith

Carleton Class of 1964.

 

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