Fossil fuel divestment. What is it, and how can we as students advocate on its behalf?
Divestment, broadly defined, is when an institution decides to voluntarily phase out, or divest, its financial investments in a particular sector or industry, as well as commit to ending all future investments in said sector until desired outcomes are met. Essentially, it is the opposite of investment. Thus, fossil fuel divestment is when an institution systematically ceases investment in the fossil fuel sector. Institutions invest in companies to generate income for themselves. That investment aids the company by generating capital and increasing its apparent value by signalling desirability in the market.
Duke is one such institution that invests to benefit its future and the well being of its students. The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown substantially in recent years. Globally, there has been over $7 trillion divested as of 2018. Why, you might ask? Two words: climate change. Our climate is changing fast: now is the time to pull out all the stops to limit our planet’s warming to below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has deemed as the level that will keep our planet, and us, from facing future environmental catastrophe.
Or is that future now upon us? People around the world, including right here in North Carolina, are already facing the devastating impacts of climate change. Hurricane Florence was strengthened by rising seas and warmer water temperatures. Further afield, many of Duke’s international students hail from countries that are already being impacted by climate change and that face grave climate risk in the near future. A report released by the IPCC earlier this month warns that we only have 12 years to drastically change course to keep our planet’s warming at 1.5º C to stave off the worst catastrophes. The time to act is now.
And we must all act. Not just as individuals, but also collectively through our most powerful and well-respected institutions. Duke University can, and should, act in the face of the global climate crisis, thereby living up to its mission of maintaining “a place of real leadership” in the world. Having already committed to carbon neutrality by 2024, Duke should extend that same commitment to sustainability to its financial investments by divesting its endowment from fossil fuels. Our university’s endowment of $8.5 billion, the 10th largest private college endowment in the U.S. for 2018, if divested, would serve as a powerful example to other educational institutions around the world, lending considerable power to the global divestment movement.
Broad student support for divestment, as evidenced by last month’s endorsements by both the Duke Student Government and Graduate and Professional Student Council to divest the University’s endowment, is strong and growing. Now it is up to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR), the committee in charge of advising the president on ethically responsible investing, to act with respect for the desire of its students. ACIR has the power to recommend divestment to the university president, which will make the ultimate decision whether Duke divests its endowment. ACIR’s position is that it would like to see additional substantantive campus discourse around divestment. In response, I challenge the Duke community—faculty as well as students—to actively participate in discussing fossil fuel divestment and bringing their views on this issue to university leadership. My hope is that this piece is just the beginning of a crucial campus conversation.
This conversation has never been more critical, as climate change marks a pivotal moment in humanity’s history. The mission of Duke’s endowment is to “support the people, programs, and activities of the university in perpetuity.” There will be no perpetuity if the global economy doesn’t transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Duke has the opportunity to be a leader in this transition though divestment. Duke recognizes that it has unique strengths to address the critical environmental challenges of our time. Now, it is time for our University to harness these strengths and align its rhetoric with action.
Lannette Rangel is a first year master's of environmental management student at the Nicholas School and is a part of the Duke Climate Coalition.