Last Monday, Hamilton students and professors gathered in the chapel for a panel discussion on divestment.
Professor Peter Cannavò began the discussion by introducing the panelists and the question: Should colleges and universities divest from fossil fuel companies? The panel’s four participants presented a range of arguments for and against divestment.
Victoria Fernandez, an associate analyst for 350.org, described several recent humanitarian crises attributed to climate change and reliance on fossil fuels. Since the fuel industry has serious financial and political power, she stressed that we must create a negative stigma around fossil fuel companies and usage. If we can influence public opinion, then public policy will follow, lowering and eventually stopping the use of fossil fuels. It is the responsibility and obligation of institutions of higher education, she argued, to lead this process.
Katelyn Kriesel, a financial advisor for Koenig & Selzer Asset Management Group, followed up Fernandez by discussing the practical aspects of divestment. She advocated what she called “socially responsible investing,” where individuals and corporations invest in companies that share their values. To be socially responsible, one must invest in sustainable programs.
For Hamilton, our endowment portfolio should then reflect what we, as a community, value. To do so, we must qualitatively observe a company’s business practices and social responsibilities in addition to the quantitative financial investment. Citing her experience as a financial advisor, Kriesel said socially responsible investing was financially viable, typically matching or exceeding previous (non-responsible) returns in the long run.
Rachelle Peterson, a research associate for the National Association of Scholars, challenged divestment by addressing three of its assumptions: that investing in fossil fuels is immoral, that it will stop or reverse climate change, and that it is an effective political and financial statement against the fuel industry. If we polarize divestment by making it a moral decision, she argued, we will dismiss any reasonable discussion.
The fuel industry presents a difficult case because of the degree to which other sectors of the economy rely on energy. Everyone benefits in various ways from technologies that rely on fossil fuel energy. Forcing institutions to take the brunt of the responsibility for personal and societal use of fuels makes little sense.
Rafael Castilla, director of Investment Risk Management at the University of Michigan, agreed with most of Peterson’s points, stressing that fuel is not only the industry but the infrastructure on which society has been built. He described how stigmatization can be a useful concept, as there are certainly immoral individuals in the fuel industry.
He questioned, however, whether stigmatization of the industry and polarization of the debate are effective steps in addressing energy and climate change, since they lead to emotional responses rather than reasonable and productive discussion. To reinforce their claims, Castilla and Peterson showed the investments in the energy and fossil fuel markets tended to generate the best returns.
Hamilton students helped further the discussion by introducing insightful questions after the panelists presented their arguments.
In my view, divestment is mostly a symbolic act, and it risks politicizing academic institutions. While divestment may take the moral and idealistic high ground in the face of climate change and energy crises, it does not address the economic realities of the energy market and investment.
When Hamilton students and faculty introduced a petition to divest last year, our Board of Trustees was “disinclined to take that course” because it posed a financial risk to our endowment. Secondarily, they recognized the seeming hypocrisy of divesting while the college continues fossil fuel use.
Bowdoin College recently attracted attention for enormous endowment gains generated from investment. They, like Hamilton, have student groups promoting divestment from a variety of causes, including fossil fuels and Israel. All of their demands for divestment have so far been rejected.
If a superior alternative energy source becomes more competitive against fossil fuels, then divestment will work itself out. Until then, we should not put Hamilton’s endowment at risk by divesting.
Special thanks to Professor Cannavò for organizing an impressive panel. Thanks also to the event’s co-sponsors: Hamilton Divests, HEAG, the AHI Undergraduate Fellows, the Hamilton Democrats, the Hamilton Republicans, the Environmental Studies Program, the Government Department, and the Office of the Dean of Faculty.