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On Climate, Divestment As Investment

There’s an esoteric-sound word echoing across campuses and board rooms this winter.

Like many colleges and universities across the country, Middlebury College is suddenly facing demands from students, faculty and alumni about “divestment”: withdrawing investments from companies whose primary business is the production and sale of fossil fuels. UVM is facing similar demands.

The campaign to pressure colleges to divest out of fossil fuels was launched in part by 350.org, an organization founded by Middlebury College students and local author and activist Bill McKibben.

That makes the challenge to divest an especially big one for the college.

It’s one admirable step to commit to being carbon-neutral by 2016, as the college has. It’s another, bigger thing to retrofit buildings for energy conservation, as the college has. Bigger yet was the conversion to burning wood chips for heat and electricity.

But to take a lucrative and profitable portion of the college’s endowment and switch it out of all fossil fuel companies? Now that’s a big challenge.

The memory of the financial impact of the Great Recession is fresh at Middlebury. And even the small, approximately 1% of the endowment the college says is directly invested in fossil fuels helps fund some college programs.

Yet the opportunity offered by divestment is far bigger than the challenges. For one thing, a big piece of the college’s reputation is at stake.

Will the college with the oldest environmental studies program decide to continue its financial support of the world’s biggest polluters? (After all, there’s ultimately no more destructive pollution than the climate-destroying carbon released by burning fossil fuels.)

Or will Middlebury continue, admirably, to put its money where its mouth is?

An event Sunday night in the college’s Mead Chapel, which kicked off the pro-divestment campaign, made the stakes quite obvious.

Destabilizing climates hurt everyone – from Vermont ski areas and maple sugar makers to the millions of Pakistanis displaced last year by record flooding.

Unless we rapidly turn away from most fossil fuels, it won’t just be Addison County riverbanks and the New York City subways that are flooded.

With sea level rise as the icecaps melt, “A major portion of humanity lives in coastal areas and small island states that will go under water,” says climate expert Thomas Lovejoy.

So far, Lovejoy adds, we lack the organized will to stem climate change: “What is needed is a world in which governments face the environmental challenge squarely, and truly lead. The current mode of nibbling around the edges is pretty much pointless.”
So would one college’s divestment decision really matter?

Absolutely it would. Middlebury’s action would set a powerful example. And as Vermont showed with marriage equality, examples matter.

Last Sunday night’s event featured special videotaped comments from noted environmental leaders Van Jones, Naomi Klein and Clayton Thomas-Muller.

Every one of those videos – along with live remarks from Thomas Steyer, a wealthy investor and Stanford University trustee – had the same message: If Middlebury leads the way on divestment, people will take note not only around the U.S., but everywhere.

That’s because Middlebury, as much as anywhere else, is the place where the contemporary movement to stem global warming and climate change took birth. Green groups around the world look to the Green Mountains, the college, and 350.org for what to do next.

Publicly withdrawing financial support from fossil fuel companies is a way to say those companies must be part of a rapid change to conservation and alternative energy. As with Phillip Morris and tobacco, divestment stigmatizes the mindless production of fossil fuels.

It sends a message that oil and coal companies are outlaws whose very business imperils the planet.

And as with divestment out of apartheid – an action that Middlebury trustees took in 1986 – divestment sends a message that the endless production of fossil fuel is in some ways immoral.

That’s because if these companies’ fossil fuel reserves are burned, global chaos will be the result. And I don’t use the word “chaos” lightly.

The difficult experiences that Americans have been through lately from extreme weather that correlates with climate change? They would be just a warm-up.

Irene and Sandy, the long drought in the West, last summer’s drought in the Midwest that left many farmers unable to grow crops – scientists are now saying these would be minor blips. To be followed by the gigantic upheaval of life all over the globe.

Within the lifetimes of today’s college students, unless we change course right now — unless we fully invest our creativity, our dollars and our will to stop pumping so much carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere – chaos will be the result.

Divestment is a powerful way to say it’s time to turn away from the climate cliff. Before we go over it.

* * *

Finally, a word about the recent passing of Ana Martinez-Lage. Ana was a friend to many of us here. A member of the Middlebury College Spanish language faculty, she died much too young last week after living for some years with breast cancer. As college President Ron Liebowitz noted in his moving remarks at Ana’s memorial service, she brought a friendly determination to her work and helped pioneer new ways to teach foreign languages. An inspiringly loving mother to her two daughters, Ana was, for all who knew her, a bright shining light.

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